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E  <OU_1 68231 

OUP— 23—  4-4-69— 5,000. 


Call  No.  Qll/W  7Bl         Accession  No.  {?&* 

Author    Vy  tf   V\Y  >'/-<'   y 
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Title    :o     \^  ,,fv.^      ^/     *•-_/.. jo 

This  book  should  be  returned  on  or  before  the  date 
last  marked  below. 


BOOKS      BY      YVOR      WINTERS 

Primitivism  and  Decadence 

Maule's  Curse 
The  Anatomy  of  Nonsense 
The  Function  of  Criticism 


The  Immobile  Wind 

The  Magpie's  Shadow 

The  Bare  Hills 

The  Proof 

The  Journey 

Before  Disaster 


The  Giant  Weapon 
Collected  Poems 


Twelve  Poets  ot  the  Pacific 
Twelve  Poets  of  the  Pacific:  Second  Scries 



A  Study  of  American  Experimental  Poetry 

Seven  Studies  in  the  History  of  American  Obscurantism 



or  What  Are  We  to  Think  of  Professor  X? 


Yvor  Winters 

ROUTLEDGE     &     KEGAN     PAUL    LTD 

Broadway  House,  68-74  Carter  Lane 

London,  E.C-4 

Third  edition 

COPYRIGHT,    1937,    1947, 


COPYRIGHT,  1938,  1943, 



MOST  OF  THE  ESSAYS  in  this  volume  are  reprinted  from  earlier 
books:  From  Primitivism  and  Decadence  (Arrow  Editions, 
1937)  The  Morality  of  Poetry,  The  Experimental  School,  Poetic 
Convention,  Primitivism  and  Decadence,  and  The  Influence  of 
Meter  on  Poetic  Convention;  from  Maules  Curse  (New  Direc- 
tions, 1938)  Maule's  Curse,  Fenimore  Cooper,  Herman  Mel- 
ville, Edgar  Allan  Poe,  Jones  Very  and  R.  W.  Emerson,  Emily 
Dickinson,  and  Maule's  Well;  from  The  Anatomy  of  Nonsense 
(New  Directions,  1943)  Preliminary  Problems,  Henry  Adams, 
Wallace  Stevens,  T.  S.  Eliot,  John  Crowe  Ransom,  and  Post 

Acknowledgment  should  be  made  also  to  the  following  mag- 
azines, in  which  some  of  this  material  appeared  originally:  The 
Hound  and  Horn,  Poetry,  American  Literature,  The  American 
Review,  and  The  Kenyon  Review. 




PRIMITIVISM  AND  DECADENCE:  A  Study  of  American 

Experimental  Poetry  15 

The  Morality  of  Poetry  17 

The  Experimental  Sehool  in  American  Thought  30 

Poetic  Convention  75 

Primitivism  and  Decadence  90 

The  Influence  of  Meter  on  Poetic  Convention  103 

MAULE'S  CURSE:  Seven  Studies  in  the  History  of  Ameri- 
can Obscurantism  151 
A  Foreword  153 
Maule's   Curse,   or   Hawthorne   and   the   Problem  of 

Allegory  157 
Fcnimorc  Cooper,  or  the  Ruins  of  Time  176 
Herman  Melville,  and  the  Problems  of  Moral  Navi- 
gation 200 
Edgar  Allan  Poe:  A  Crisis  in  the  History  of  American 

Obscurantism  234 
Jones  Very  and  R.  W.  Emerson :  Aspects  of  New  Eng- 
land Mysticism  262 
Emily  Dickinson  and  the  Limits  of  Judgment  283 
Maule's  Well,  or  Henry  James  and  the  Relation  of 

Morals  to  Manners  300 

A  Brief  Selection  of  the  Poems  of  Jones  Very  344 


Preliminary  Problems  361 

I  Icnry  Adams,  or  the  Creation  of  Confusion  374 

Wallace  Stevens,  or  the  Hedonist's  Progress  431 

T.  S.  Eliot,  or  the  Illusion  of  Reaction  460 



John  Crowe  Ransom,  or  Thunder  Without  God  502 

Post  Scripta  556 

or  What  Are  We  to  Think  of  Professor  X?  575 





THE  ESSAYS  NOW  REPRINTED  in  this  volume  are  the  work  of  more 
than  fifteen  years.  Although  this  collection,  like  any  collection 
of  essays,  suffers  from  its  miscellaneous  character,  there  is  a 
single  theory  of  literature  developed  throughout  and  a  single 
theory  of  the  history  of  literature  since  the  Renaissance.  These 
theories  are  developed  mainly  with  reference  to  American  litera- 
ture. It  may  be  of  some  service  to  the  reader  if  I  recapitulate 

There  have  been  various  ideas  regarding  the  nature  and  func- 
tion of  literature  during  the  twenty-five  hundred  years  or  so  that 
literature  has  been  seriously  discussed.  One  might  think,  off- 
hand, that  the  possibilities  were  limitless;  but  they  are  actually 
limited  and  even  narrowly  limited— the  ideas  are  all  classifiable 
under  a  fairly  small  number  of  headings.  I  shall  not  attempt  an 
historical  survey  but  shall  merely  attempt  a  brief  classificatory 
survey.  The  theories  in  question  can  all  be  classified,  I  believe, 
under  three  headings:  the  didactic,  the  hedonistic,  and  the  ro- 
mantic. I  am  not  in  sympathy  with  any  of  these,  but  with  a 
fourth,  which  for  lack  of  a  better  term  I  call  the  moralistic.  This 
concept  of  literature  has  not  been  adequately  defined  in  the  past 
so  far  as  my  limited  knowledge  extends,  but  I  believe  that  it  has 
been  loosely  implicit  in  the  inexact  theorizing  which  has  led  to 
the  most  durable  judgments  in  the  history  of  criticism. 

The  didactic  theory  of  literature  is  simple;  it  is  this:  that 
literature  offers  us  useful  precepts  and  explicit  moral  instruction. 
If  the  theory  is  sound,  then  literature  is  useful;  but  the  question 
arises  as  to  whether  there  may  not  be  other  fields  of  study,  such 


as  religion  or  ethics,  which  may  accomplish  the  same  end  more 
efficiently.  The  question  is  usually  met  by  the  Horatian  formula, 
which  combines  the  didactic  with  the  hedonistic,  telling  us  that 
the  function  of  literature  is  to  provide  instruction  (or  profit)  in 
conjunction  with  pleasure,  to  make  instruction  palatable.  Of  this 
I  shall  say  more  later.  There  arises  another  question  in  connec- 
tion with  the  didactic  theory:  can  one  say,  as  someone— I  believe 
it  was  Kenneth  Burke— has  remarked,  that  Hamlet  was  written 
to  prove  that  procrastination  is  the  thief  of  time,  or  to  prove 
something  comparably  simple?  Or  is  there  more  than  that  to 
Hamlet?  And  if  there  is  more,  is  it  worth  anything?  It  seems 
obvious  to  me  that  there  is  more  and  that  it  is  worth  a  great  deal, 
that  the  paraphrasable  content  of  the  work  is  never  equal  to  the 
work,  and  that  our  theory  of  literature  must  account  not  only  for 
the  paraphrasable  content  but  for  the  work  itself.  The  didactic 
theory  of  literature  fails  to  do  this. 

The  hedonist  sees  pleasure  as. the  end  of  life,  and  literature 
either  as  a  heightener  of  pleasure  or  as  the  purveyor  of  a  particu- 
lar and  mdre  or  less  esoteric  variety  of  pleasure.  The  term  pleas- 
ure is  applied  indiscriminately  to  widely  varying  experiences :  we 
say,  for  example,  that  we  derive  pleasure  from  a  glass  of  good 
whisky  and  that  we  derive  pleasure  from  reading  Hamlet.  The 
word  is  thus  misleading,  for  it  designates  two  experiences  here 
which  have  little  relationship  to  each  other.  There  is  a  great 
range  in  the  kinds  of  pleasure  advocated  in  various  hedonistic 
philosophies,  but  in  general  one  might  remark  this  defect  which 
is  common  to  nearly  all,  perhaps  to  all,  such  systems:  pleasure 
is  treated  as  an  end  in  itself,  not  as  a  by-product  of  something 
else.  If  we  recognize  that  certain  feelings  which  are  loosely 
classifiable  as  forms  of  pleasure  result  from  our  recognition  of 
various  kinds  of  truth  and  from  the  proper  functioning  of  our 
natures  in  the  process  of  this  recognition,  we  then  have  a  princi- 
ple which  may  enable  us  to  distinguish  these  pleasures  from 
pleasures  less  important  or  less  desirable,  such  as  the  pleasures 
or  satisfactions  which  we  derive  from  the  gratification  of  physical 
appetites  or  from  the  excitement  of  stimulants,  and  a  principle 
which  may  even  enable  us  to  evaluate  relatively  to  each  other  the 

higher  pleasures  themselves.  But  pleasure  then  becomes  inciden- 
tal and  not  primary,  and  our  system  can  no  longer  be  classified  as 
properly  hedonistic.  Furthermore,  there  is  this  distinction  at  least 
between  hedonistic  ethics  and  hedonistic  aesthetics:  hedonistic 
ethics,  as  in  the  philosophy  of  Epicurus,  may  take  on  a  somewhat 
passive  or  negativistic  character;  that  is  pleasure  may  come  to  be 
more  or  less  nearly  identified  simply  with  the  avoidance  of  pain. 
But  one  cannot  praise  a  poem  or  a  picture  merely  by  saying  that 
it  gives  no  pain:  the  experience  of  the  poem  or  of  the  picture 
must  be  strongly  positive.  Hedonistic  theories  of  literature  tend 
in  the  main,  and  this  is  especially  true  in  the  past  two  hundred 
years,  to  take  one  of  two  forms. 

The  first  might  be  connected  with  the  name  of  Walter  Pater. 
According  to  this  view  there  is  a  close  relation  between  hedo- 
nistic ethics  and  hedonistic  aesthetics.  Pleasure  is  the  aim  of  life. 
Pleasure  consists  in  intensity  of  experience;  that  is  in  the  culti- 
vation of  the  feelings  for  their  own  sake,  as  a  good  in  themselves. 
And  literature,  or  at  any  rate  the  arts  in  general,  can  provide  a 
finer  technique  of  such  cultivation  than  can  any  other  mode  of 
activity.  We  meet  here  the  first  difficulty  which  I  mentioned  in 
connection  with  hedonistic  doctrines;  namely,  that  unless  we 
have  illicit  relations  with  some  non-hedonistic  ethical  theory,  we 
have  no  way  of  distinguishing  among  the  many  and  diverse 
excitements  that  are  commonly  described  as  pleasurable.  And 
we  shall  discover,  as  a  matter  of  human  nature  which  is  recorded 
in  the  history  of  literature  and  the  other  arts,  that  this  search 
for  intensity  of  experience  leads  inevitably  to  an  endless  pursuit 
either  of  increasing  degrees  of  violence  of  emotion  or  of  increas- 
ingly elusive  and  more  nearly  meaningless  nuances,  and  ulti- 
mately to  disillusionment  with  art  and  with  life.  It  is  possible, 
of  course,  that  art  and  life  are  really  worthless,  but  on  the  other 
hand  it  is  possible  that  they  are  valuable.  And  until  we  have 
made  sure  that  our  hedonistic  theory  offers  a  true  description  of 
human  experience,  that  no  better  description  is  possible,  we 
should  be  unwise  to  commit  ourselves  to  it,  for  the  ultimate 
consequences  appear  both  certain  and  unfortunate. 

The  second  form  of  hedonistic  theory  tends  to  dissociate  the 


artistic  experience  sharply  from  all  other  experience,  T.  S.  Eliot, 
for  example,  tells  us  that  the  human  experience  about  which  the 
poem  appears  to  be  written  has  been  transmuted  in  the  aesthetic 
process  into  something  new  which  is  different  in  kind  from  all 
other  experience.  The  poem  is  not  then,  as  it  superficially  ap- 
pears, a  statement  about  a  human  experience,  but  is  a  thing  in 
itself.  The  beginnings  of  this  notion  are  to  be  found  in  Poe  and 
are  developed  further  by  the  French  Symbolists,  notably  by  Mal- 
Iarm6.  The  aim  of  the  poem  so  conceived  is  again  pleasure, 
pleasure  conceived  as  intensity  of  emotion;  but  the  emotion  is 
of  an  absolutely  special  sort.  Some  such  notion  of  the  artistic  ex- 
perience is  the  essential  concept  of  Santayana's  aesthetics;  in 
fact,  it  is  essential  to  almost  any  treatment  of  "aesthetics"  as  a 
branch  of  philosophy,  and  one  will  find  it  everywhere  in  the 
work  of  the  academic  aestheticians  of  the  past  half-century.  The 
nature  of  the  "aesthetic"  experience  as  conceived  in  these  terms 
has  never  been  clearly  defined;  we  commonly  meet  here  a  kind 
of  pseudcNmysticism.  The  chief  advantage  of  this  kind  of  hedon- 
ism over  the  Paterian  variety  is  that  one  can  adhere  to  it  without 
adhering  to  a  doctrine  of  ethical  hedonism,  for  art  and  lift-  arc 
absolutely  severed  from  each  other.  Eliot,  for  example,  considers 
himself  a  Christian.  The  chief  disadvantage  is  that  it  renders  in- 
telligible discussion  of  art  impossible,  and  it  relegates  art  to  the 
position  of  an  esoteric  indulgence,  possibly  though  not  certainly 
harmless,  but  hardly  of  sufficient  importance  to  merit  a  high 
position  among  other  human  activities.  Art,  however,  has  always 
been  accorded  a  high  position,  and  a  true  theory  of  art  should 
be  able  to  account  for  this  fact. 

Certain  theorists  who  have  been  aware  that  art  is  more  than 
moral  precept  on  the  one  hand  and  more  than  a  search  for  culti- 
vated excitement  on  the  other  have  tried  to  account  for  its  com- 
plexity by  combining  the  didactic  and  the  hedonistic  theories: 
this  gives  us  the  Horatian  formula,  that  art  combines  profit  with 
pleasure.  When  this  formula  occurs,  as  it  often  does,  in  the  writ- 
ing of  a  great  poet  or  of  some  other  person  who  takes  his  poetry 
seriously,  it  apparently  represents  a  somewhat  rough  and  ready 
recognition  of  the  fact  that  poetry  has  intellectual  content  and 

something  more;  that  its  power  is  real  and  cannot  be  accounted 
for  too  easily.  But  if  one  regard  the  doctrine  itself,  and  regard 
it  as  pure  theory,  it  is  unsatisfactory;  or  at  any  rate  it  relegates 
art  to  an  unsatisfactory  position.  For  the  didactic  element  in  art 
so  conceived  will  be  no  more  efficient  as  didacticism  than  we 
have  seen  it  to  be  before:  that  is,  the  serious  moralist  may  quite 
reasonably  argue  that  he  prefers  to  get  his  teaching  in  a  more 
direct  and  compact  form;  and  the  pleasure  is  still  in  the  unhappy 
predicament  in  which  we  found  it  in  the  purely  hedonistic 

The  Romantic  theory  of  literature  takes  account  more  seri- 
ously than  the  theories  which  I  have  thus  far  mentioned  of  the 
power  which  literature  seems  to  exert  over  human  nature,  and 
to  that  extent  offers  a  more  realistic  view  of  literature.  I  am  con- 
cerned with  literature  which  may  be  loosely  described  as  artistic: 
that  is,  with  literature  which  communicates  not  only  thought 
but  also  emotion.  I  do  not  like  the  expression  imaginative  lit- 
erature, for  in  its  colloquial  acceptation  the  phrase  excludes  too 
much:  it  excludes  the  persuasive  and  hortatory,  for  example,  the 
sermon  and  the  political  tract;  and  imagination  as  a  term  of  so- 
phisticated criticism  has  been  used  so  variously  and  so  elusively, 
especially  during  the  past  hundred  and  fifty  years,  that  I  am  not 
quite  sure  what  it  means.  But  the  power  of  artistic  literature  is 
real:  if  we  consider  such  writers  as  Plato,  Augustine,  Dante, 
Shakespeare,  Rousseau,  Voltaire,  Emerson,  and  Hitler,  to  go  no 
further,  we  must  be  aware  that  such  literature  has  been  directly 
and  indirectly  one  of  the  greatest  forces  in  human  history.  The 
Gospels  gave  a  new  direction  to  half  the  world;  Mem  Kampf 
very  nearly  reversed  that  direction.  The  influence  of  Rimbaud 
and  of  Mallarm£  is  quite  as  real  but  has  operated  more  slowly 
and  with  less  of  obvious  violence.  It  behooves  us  to  discover  the 
nature  of  artistic  literature,  what  it  does,  how  it  does  it,  and  how 
one  may  evaluate  it.  It  is  one  of  the  facts  of  life,  and  quite  as 
important  a  fact  as  atomic  fission.  In  our  universities  at  present, 
for  example,  one  or  another  of  the  hedonistic  views  of  literature 
will  be  found  to  dominate,  although  often  colored  by  Romantic 
ideas,  with  the  result  that  the  professors  of  literature,  who  for 


the  most  part  are  genteel  but  mediocre  men,  can  make  but  a  poor 
defence  of  their  profession,  and  the  professors  of  science,  who  are 
frequently  men  of  great  intelligence  but  of  limited  interests  and 
education,  feel  a  politely  disguised  contempt  for  it;  and  thus  the 
study  of  one  of  the  most  pervasive  and  powerful  influences  on 
human  life  is  traduced  and  neglected. 

The  Romantics,  however,  although  they  offer  a  relatively  real- 
istic view  of  the  power  of  literature,  offer  a  fallacious  and  danger- 
ous view  of  the  nature  both  of  literature  and  of  man.  The  Ro- 
mantic theory  assumes  that  literature  is  mainly  or  even  purely 
an  emotional  experience,  that  man  is  naturally  good,  that  man's 
impulses  are  trustworthy,  that  the  rational  faculty  is  unreliable 
to  the  point  of  being  dangerous  or  possibly  evil.  The  Romantic 
theory  of  human  nature  teaches  that  if  man  will  rely  upon  his 
impulses,  he  will  achieve  the  good  life.  When  this  notion  is 
combined,  as  it  frequently  is,  with  a  pantheistic  philosophy  or 
religion,  it  commonly  teaches  that  through  surrender  to  im- 
pulse man  will  not  only  achieve  the  good  life  but  will  achieve 
also  a  kind  of  mystical  union  with  the  Divinity:  this,  for  ex- 
ample, is  the  doctrine  of  Emerson.  Literature  thus  becomes  a 
form  of  what  is  known  popularly  as  self-expression.  It  is  not  the 
business  of  man  to  understand  and  improve  himself,  for  such  an 
effort  is  superfluous:  he  is  good  as  he  is,  if  he  will  only  let  him- 
self alone,  or,  as  we  might  say,  let  himself  go.  The  poem  is 
valuable  because  it  enables  us  to  share  the  experience  of  a  man 
who  has  let  himself  go,  who  has  expressed  his  feelings,  without 
hindrance,  as  he  has  found  them  at  a  given  moment.  The  ulti- 
mate ideal  at  which  such  a  theory  aims  is  automatism.  There  is 
nothing  in  the  theory  to  provide  a  check  on  such  automatism;  if 
the  individual  man  is  restrained  by  some  streak  of  personal  but 
unformulated  common  sense,  by  some  framework  of  habit  de- 
rived from  a  contrary  doctrine,  such  as  Christian  doctrine,  or  by 
something  in  his  biological  inheritance,  that  is  merely  his  good 
fortune— the  Romantic  doctrine  itself  will  not  restrain  him.  The 
Romantic  doctrine  itself  will  urge  him  toward  automatism.  And 
the  study  of  history  seems  to  show  that  if  any  doctrine  is  widely 
accepted  for  a  long  period  of  time,  it  tends  more  and  more  strongly 

to  exact  conformity  from  human  nature,  to  alter  human  nature. 
The  Romantic  theory  of  literature  and  of  human  nature  has  been 
the  dominant  theory  in  western  civilization  for  about  two  and 
a  half  centuries.  Its  influence  is  obviously  disastrous  in  litera- 
ture and  is  already  dangerous  in  other  departments  of  human  life. 

There  are  certain  other  general  notions  of  human  nature  and 
of  values  which  are  related  to  the  notions  which  I  have  been 
discussing,  but  which  are  not  exactly  correlative  with  them.  I 
shall  refer  to  them  rather  baldly  as  determinism,  relativism,  and 

Determinism  is  that  theory  of  the  universe  which  holds  that 
the  whole  is  a  single  organism,  pursuing  a  single  and  undeviat- 
ing  course  which  has  been  predestined  by  God  or  determined  by 
its  own  nature.  It  sees  the  human  being  simply  as  a  part  of  this 
organism,  with  no  independent  force  of  his  own.  One  must  dis- 
tinguish sharply  between  a  deterministic  theory  and  a  theory 
which  recognizes  the  real  existence  of  influences  outside  of  the 
individual,  whether  those  influences  be  historical,  biological,  or 
other.  One  may  even  take  a  pessimistic  view  of  such  influences 
without  being  a  determinist.  If  one  admits  that  man  may  under- 
stand in  some  measure  the  conditions  of  his  existence,  that  as 
a  result  of  such  understanding  he  may  choose  a  mode  of  action, 
that  as  a  result  of  such  choice  he  may  persevere  in  the  mode  of 
action  chosen,  and  that  as  a  result  of  his  perseverance  he  may  in 
some  measure  alter  the  conditions  of  his  existence,  then  one  is 
not  a  determinist.  Few  people  who  profess  deterministic  doc- 
trines are  willing  to  envisage  clearly  their  implications,  how- 
ever. As  a  result,  one  will  find  all  three  of  the  views  of  poetry 
which  I  have  mentioned  held  by  determinists. 

It  is  natural  that  deterministic  and  Romantic  theories  should 
coincide,  for  Romanticism  teaches  the  infinite  desirability  of 
automatism,  and  determinism  teaches  the  inevitability  of  autom- 
atism. Determinism  is  Romanticism  in  a  disillusioned  mood; 
Henry  Adams  is  little  more  than  the  obverse  side  of  Emerson, 
the  dark  side  of  the  moon.  And  since  hedonism  is,  like  deter- 
minism, an  anti-intellectualistic  philosophy  and  is  somewhat 
vague  in  all  its  tenets,  it  is  not  surprising  that  determinists  should 

sometimes  appear  as  hedonists:  since  they  cannot  control  in  any 
measure  the  courses  of  their  lives,  the  determinists  sometimes 
find  solace  in  seeking  pleasure  along  the  way,  without  stopping 
to  consider  that  such  a  search  is  a  willful  activity  involving  at 
least  limited  consideration  and  choice.  It  is  curious  that  the 
didactic  view  of  literature  should  so  often  be  adopted  by  deter- 
minists, however,  for  the  determinist  really  has  no  right  to  the 
didactic  method.  Yet  the  most  vigorous,  one  might  say  the  most 
religious,  of  the  various  species  of  determinist,  such  for  example 
as  the  Calvinists  of  the  past  and  the  Marxists  of  the  present,  are 
commonly  the  most  didactic  of  men,  both  in  their  literature  and 
in  their  behavior. 

The  absolutist  believes  in  the  existence  of  absolute  truths  and 
values.  Unless  he  is  very  foolish,  he  does  not  believe  that  he 
personally  has  free  access  to  these  absolutes  and  that  his  own 
judgments  are  final;  but  he  does  believe  that  such  absolutes  exist 
and  that  it  is  the  duty  of  every  man  and  of  every  society  to  en- 
deavor as  far  as  may  be  to  approximate  them.  The  relativist,  on 
the  other  hand,  believes  that  there  are  no  absolute  truths,  that 
the  judgment  of  every  man  is  right  for  himself.  I  am  aware  that 
many  persons  believe  that  they  have  arrived  at  some  kind  of 
compromise  between  these  two  positions,  but  actually  no  com- 
promise is  possible.  Any  such  attempt  at  compromise,  if  closely 
examined,  will  exhibit  an  ultimate  allegiance  to  one  position  or 
the  other  or  else  will  exhibit  simple  confusion.  It  is  popular  at 
present  to  profess  relativism  and  yet  in  important  matters  to  act 
as  if  we  were  absolutists.  Our  ideas  of  justice,  which  we  endeavor 
to  define  by  law  and  for  which  wars  are  often  fought,  can  be 
defended  only  by  invoking  moral  absolutism.  Our  universities, 
in  which  relativistic  doctrines  are  widely  taught,  can  justify 
their  existence  only  in  terms  of  a  doctrine  of  absolute  truth.  The 
professor  of  English  Literature,  who  believes  that  taste  is  relative, 
yet  who  endeavors  to  convince  his  students  that  Hamlet  is  more 
worthy  of  their  attention  than  some  currently  popular  novel,  is 
in  a  serious  predicament,  a  predicament  which  is  moral,  intellec- 
tual, and  in  the  narrowest  sense  professional,  though  he  com- 
monly has  not  the  wit  to  realize  the  fact. 

The  Romantic  is  almost  inescapably  a  relativist,  for  if  all  men 
follow  their  impulses  there  will  be  a  wide  disparity  of  judgments 
and  of  actions  and  the  fact  enforces  recognition.  The  Emer- 
sonian formula  is  the  perfect  one:  that  is  right  for  me  which  is 
after  my  constitution;  that  is  right  for  you  which  is  after  yours; 
the  common  divinity  will  guide  each  of  us  in  the  way  which  is 
best  for  him.  The  hedonist  is  usually  a  relativist  and  should  logi- 
cally be  one,  but  there  is  often  an  illicit  and  veiled  recognition  of 
absolutism  in  his  attempts  to  classify  the  various  pleasures  as 
more  or  less  valuable,  not  for  himself  alone  but  in  general.  The 
defender  of  the  didactic  view  of  literature  has  been  traditionally 
an  absolutist,  but  he  is  not  invariably  so:  didacticism  is  a  method, 
and  when  one  sees  literature  only  as  didacticism  one  sees  it  as 
a  method,  and  the  method  may  be  used,  as  Emerson  used  it,  to 
disseminate  relativistic  doctrine. 

The  theory  of  literature  which  I  defend  in  these  essays  is  ab- 
solutist. I  believe  that  the  work  of  literature,  in  so  far  as  it  is 
valuable,  approximates  a  real  apprehension  and  communication 
of  a  particular  kind  of  objective  truth.  The  form  of  literature 
with  which  I  am  for  the  most  part  concerned  is  the  poem;  but 
since  the  poem  exhausts  more  fully  than  any  other  literary  form 
the  inherent  possibilities  of  language,  what  I  say  about  poetry 
can  be  extended  to  include  other  literary  forms  with  relatively 
unimportant  qualifications,  and  in  point  of  fact  I  devote  con- 
siderable space  to  other  literary  forms.  The  poem  is  a  statement 
in  words  about  a  human  experience.  Words  are  primarily  con- 
ceptual, but  through  use  and  because  human  experience  is  not 
purely  conceptual,  they  have  acquired  connotations  of  feeling. 
The  poet  makes  his  statement  in  such  a  way  as  to  employ  both 
concept  and  connotation  as  efficiently  as  possible.  The  poem  is 
good  in  so  far  as  it  makes  a  defensible  rational  statement  about 
a  given  human  experience  (the  experience  need  not  be  real  but 
must  be  in  some  sense  possible)  and  at  the  same  time  communi- 
cates the  emotion  which  ought  to  be  motivated  by  that  rational 
understanding  of  that  experience.  This  notion  of  poetry,  what- 
ever its  defects,  will  account  both  for  the  power  of  poetry  and  of 
artistic  literature  in  general  on  its  readers  and  for  the  seriousness 


with  which  the  great  poets  have  taken  their  art.  Milton,  for  ex- 
ample, did  not  write  Paradise  Lost  to  give  pleasure  to  Professor 
So-and-So,  nor  did  he  write  it  to  give  free  rein  to  his  emotions; 
he  wrote  it  in  order  to  justify  the  ways  of  God  to  men,  and  the 
justification  involved  not  merely  a  statement  of  theory  but  a  con- 
formity of  the  emotional  nature  of  man  with  the  theory. 

Poetry,  and  in  a  less  definite  fashion  all  artistic  literature,  in- 
volves not  only  the  two  aspects  of  language  which  I  have  just 
mentioned,  but  also  the  rhythmic  and  the  formal.  Rhythm,  for 
reasons  which  I  do  not  wholly  understand,  has  the  power  of 
communicating  emotion;  and  as  a  part  of  the  poem  it  has  the 
power  of  qualifying  the  total  emotion.  What  we  speak  of  loosely 
as  the  "form"  of  a  poem  is  probably,  at  least  for  the  most  part, 
two-fold:  we  have  on  the  one  hand  the  rational  structure  of  the 
poem,  the  orderly  arrangement  and  progression  of  thought;  and 
we  have  on  the  other  a  kind  of  rhythm  broader  and  less  easily 
measurable  than  the  rhythm  of  the  line— the  poem  exists  in  time, 
the  mind  proceeds  through  it  in  time,  and  if  the  poet  is  a  good 
one  he  take£  advantage  of  this  fact  and  makes  the  progression 
rhythmical.  These  aspects  of  the  poem  will  be  efficient  in  so 
far  as  the  poet  subordinates  them  to  the  total  aim  of  the  poem. 

One  criticism  which  has  been  made  of  me  repeatedly  is  this: 
that  I  wish  to  discard  every  poem  to  which  I  make  objections. 
This  is  not  true.  Probably  no  poem  is  perfect  in  the  eye  of  God. 
So  far  as  I  am  concerned,  a  good  many  poems  approach  so  nearly 
to  perfection  that  I  find  them  satisfactory.  But  there  are  many 
poems  which  seem  to  me  obviously  imperfect  and  even  very 
seriously  imperfect,  which  I  have  no  wish  to  discard.  Some  of 
these  I  have  analyzed  both  in  respect  to  their  virtues  and  to  their 
defects;  others,  because  of  the  nature  of  my  discussion,  mainly 
with  reference  to  their  defects;  but  I  have  dealt  with  few  works 
which  do  not  seem  to  me  to  have  discernible  virtues,  for  to  do 
otherwise  would  seem  to  me  a  waste  of  time.  If  we  were  all  to 
emulate  Hart  Crane,  the  result  would  be  disastrous  to  literature 
and  to  civilization;  it  is  necessary  to  understand  the  limitations 
of  Hart  Crane,  which  are  of  the  utmost  seriousness;  but  when  we 
understand  those  limitations,  we  are  in  a  position  to  profit  by  his 


virtues  with  impunity,  and  his  virtues  are  sometimes  very  great. 
If  we  are  not  aware  of  his  limitations  but  are  sufficiently  sensi- 
tive to  guess  in  some  fashion  at  his  virtues,  he  may  easily  take 
possession  of  us  wholly.  This  difficulty  indicates  the  function  of 

Certain  poetry  of  the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries  ap- 
proximates most  closely  the  qualities  which  seem  to  me  the  best. 
It  seems  to  me,  as  it  has  seemed  to  many  others,  that  there  has 
been  a  general  deterioration  of  the  quality  of  poetry  since  the 
opening  of  the  eighteenth  century.  Like  many  others,  I  have 
endeavored  to  account  for  this  deterioration.  It  would  surprise 
no  one  if  I  stated  that  Collins'  Ode  to  Evening  was  an  im- 
perfect and  secondary  poem  if  judged  in  comparison  with  all 
English  poetry;  but  it  arouses  antagonism  when  I  give  reasons, 
partly  because  there  is  a  general  dislike  for  reasons,  and  partly 
because  my  reasons  are  not  complimentary  to  the  orthodoxies 
of  our  time.  I  regret  the  antagonism,  but  since  I  believe  my  rea- 
sons to  be  sound  and  the  matter  in  general  serious,  I  must  main- 
tain my  position  and  take  the  consequences.  These  essays,  then, 
endeavor  not  only  to  defend  a  theory  of  poetry  and  to  judge 
certain  writers  with  reference  to  that  theory,  but  to  outline  as 
far  as  this  kind  of  writing  permits  certain  historical  tendencies 
and  the  reasons  for  them.  I  do  this  in  the  hope  that  my  efforts 
may  in  some  small  measure  contribute  to  the  alteration  of  these 
tendencies;  our  literary  culture  (to  mention  nothing  more)  ap- 
pears to  me  to  be  breaking  up,  and  the  rescue  of  it  appears  to  me 
a  matter  of  greater  moment  than  the  private  feelings  of  some 
minor  poet  or  scholar. 

I  should  perhaps  call  attention  to  one  other  matter  in  connec- 
tion with  my  aims.  It  seems  to  me  impossible  to  judge  the  value 
of  any  idea  in  a  vacuum.  That  is,  the  hedonistic  view  of  litera- 
ture may  conceivably  appear  sound,  or  the  relativistic  view  of 
literature  and  morals  may  appear  sound,  if  the  idea  is  circum- 
scribed by  a  few  words.  But  either  idea  implies  a  fairly  complete 
description  of  a  large  range  of  human  experience,  and  if  the 
description  does  not  agree  with  the  facts  as  we  are  forced  to 
recognize  them,  then  something  is  wrong.  I  am  acquainted,  for 


example,  with  the  arguments  which  prove  that  the  wall  is  not 
there,  but  if  I  try  to  step  through  the  wall,  I  find  that  the  wall 
is  there  notwithstanding  the  arguments.  During  the  past  century 
or  so,  the  number  of  poets  who  have  endeavored  to  conform 
their  practice  to  the  ideas  which  seem  to  me  unsound  has  been 
rather  large,  and  we  can  judge  the  ideas  more  or  less  clearly  in 
the  light  of  these  experiments.  A  large  part  of  this  book  is  de- 
voted to  the  analysis  of  such  experiments. 

Finally,  I  am  aware  that  my  absolutism  implies  a  theistic  posi- 
tion, unfortunate  as  this  admission  may  be.  If  experience  appears 
to  indicate  that  absolute  truths  exist,  that  we  are  able  to  work 
toward  an  approximate  apprehension  of  them,  but  that  they  are 
antecedent  to  our  apprehension  and  that  our  apprehension  is 
seldom  and  perhaps  never  perfect,  then  there  is  only  one  place  in 
which  those  truths  may  be  located,  and  I  see  no  way  to  escape 
this  conclusion.  I  merely  wish  to  point  out  that  my  critical  and 
moral  notions  are  derived  from  the  observation  of  literature  and 
of  life,  and  that  my  theism  is  derived  from  my  critical  and  moral 
notions.  I  cjid  not  proceed  from  the  opposite  direction. 

All  of  the  concepts  outlined  briefly  and  incompletely  in  this 
foreword,  with  the  exception  of  that  mentioned  in  the  last  para- 
graph, will  be  found  more  fully  explained  at  various  points  in 
the  present  volume.  These  remarks  are  not  offered  as  a  complete 
statement,  but  are  offered  merely  as  a  guide  and  an  introduction. 

Primitivism  and 



BEFORE  ATTEMPTING  TO  ELUCIDATE  or  to  criticize  a  poetry  so  dif- 
ficult and  evasive  as  that  of  the  best  moderns,  it  would  appear  wise 
to  summarize  as  clearly  as  possible  those  qualities  for  which  one 
looks  in  a  poem.  We  may  say  that  a  poem  in  the  first  place  should 
offer  us  new  perceptions,  not  only  of  the  exterior  universe,  but  of 
human  experience  as  well;  it  should  add,  in  other  words,  to  what 
we  have  already  seen.  This  is  the  elementary  function  for  the 
reader.  The  corresponding  function  for  the  poet  is  a  sharpening 
and  training  of  his  sensibilities;  the  very  exigencies  of  the  me- 
dium as  he  employs  it  in  the  act  of  perception  should  force  him 
to  the  discovery  of  values  which  he  never  would  have  found 
without  the  convening  of  all  the  conditions  of  that  particular  act, 
conditions  one  or  more  of  which  will  be  the  necessity  of  solving 
some  particular  difficulty  such  as  the  location  of  a  rhyme  or  the 
perfection  of  a  cadence  without  disturbance  to  the  remainder  of 
the  poem.  The  poet  who  suffers  from  such  difficulties  instead  of 
profiting  by  them  is  only  in  a  rather  rough  sense  a  poet  at  all. 

If,  however,  the  difficulties  of  versification  are  a  stimulant 
merely  to  the  poet,  the  reader  may  argue  that  he  finds  them  a 
hindrance  to  himself  and  that  he  prefers  some  writer  of  prose 
who  appears  to  offer  him  as  much  with  less  trouble  to  all  con- 
cerned. The  answer  to  such  a  reader  is  that  the  appearance  of 
equal  richness  in  the  writer  of  prose  is  necessarily  deceptive. 

For  language  is  a  kind  of  abstraction,  even  at  its  most  concrete; 
such  a  word  as  "cat,"  for  instance,  is  generic  and  not  particular. 
Such  a  word  becomes  particular  only  in  so  far  as  it  gets  into  some 
kind  of  experiential  complex,  which  qualifies  it  and  limits  it, 

which  gives  it,  in  short,  a  local  habitation  as  well  as  a  name.  Such 
a  complex  is  the  poetic  line  or  other  unit,  which,  in  turn,  should 
be  a  functioning  part  of  the  larger  complex,  or  poem.  This  is,  I 
imagine,  what  Mallarm6  should  have  had  in  mind  when  he 
demanded  that  the  poetic  line  be  a  new  word,  not  found  in  any 
dictionary,  and  partaking  of  the  nature  of  incantation  (that  is, 
having  the  power  to  materialize,  or  perhaps  it  would  be  more 
accurate  to  say,  Toeing,  a  new  experience.)1 

The  poem,  to  be  perfect,  should  likewise  be  a  new  word  in  the 

1St6phane  Mallarme*:  Avant-Dire  du  Traite  du  Verbe,  par  Ren6  Ghil. 
Giraud,  18  Rue  Drouot,  Paris.  1886.  Actually,  Mallarme"  seems  to  have  had 
more  in  mind,  though  he  should  have  had  no  more,  in  my  opinion.  The  margin 
of  difference  is  the  margin  in  which  post-romantic  theory  has  flourished  and 
from  which  post-romantic  poetry  has  sprung.  I  quote  the  entire  curious  passage: 

"Un  de*sir  inde*niable  a  re*poque  est  de  se*parer  comme  en  vue  d'attributions 
diffe*rentes,  le  double  e*tat  de  la  parole,  brut  ou  immediate  ici,  la  essentiel. 

"Narrer,  enseigner,  m£me  de"crire,  cela  va  et  encore  qu'a  chacun  sumrait 
peut-£tre,  pour  echanger  toute  pense*e  humaine,  de  prendre  ou  de  mettre  dans 
la  main  d'autrui  en  silence  une  piece  de  monnaie,  1'emploi  elementaire  du  dis- 
cours  dessert  Tuniversel  reportage  dont,  la  Litterature  excepte"e,  participe  tout, 
entre  les  genres  d'ecrits  contemporains. 

"A  quoi  bon  la  merveille  de  transposer  un  fait  de  nature  en  sa  presque  dis- 
parition  vibratoire  selon  le  jeu  de  la  parole  cependant,  si  ce  n'est  pour  qu'on 
emane,  sans  la  g£ne  d'un  proche  ou  concret  rappel,  la  notion  pure? 

"Je  dis:  une  fleur!  et,  hors  de  1'oubli  ou  ma  voix  relegue  aucun  contour,  en 
tant  que  quelque  chose  d'autre  que  les  calices  sus,  musicalement  se  leve,  id£e 
rieuse  ou  altiere,  1'absente  de  tous  bouquets. 

"Au  contraire  d'une  fonction  de  numeraire  facile  et  repre*sentatif,  comme  le 
traite  d'abord  la  foule,  le  parler  qui  est,  apres  tout,  reVe  et  chant,  retrouve  chez 
le  poete,  par  ne*cessit£  constitutive  d'un  art  consacre*  aux  fictions,  sa  virtualite*. 
Le  vers  qui  de  plusierus  vocables  refait  un  mot  total,  neuf,  etranger  a  la 
langue  et  comme  incantatoire,  acheve  cet  isolement  de  la  parole:  niant,  d'un 
trait  souverain,  le  hasard  demeure*  aux  termes  malgre*  I'artifice  de  leur  retrempe 
alterne'e  en  le  sens  et  la  sonorite",  et  vous  cause  cette  surprise  de  n'avoir  oui 
jamais  tel  fragment  ordinaire  d'elocution,  en  m^me  temps  que  la  reminiscence 
de  Fobjet  nomm^  baigne  dans  une  clairvoyante  atmosphere." 

This  is  in  some  respects  an  admirable  summary,  and  is  certainly  important 
historically.  The  entire  tendency  of  the  passage  is  to  encourage  the  elimination 
of  the  rational  from  poetry.  One  should  observe  the  sequence:  "narrer,  en- 
seigner, m&me  decrire,"  as  if  description  were  more  nearly  poetic  than  the 
other  activities.  The  word  essentiel,  at  the  end  of  the  first  paragraph  is  the 
crux  of  the  whole  passage.  The  critic  savs  that  words  have  an  obvious  (that  is, 
a  rational)  meaning,  and  a  fringe  of  feeling,  which  he  chooses  to  call  essential: 
if  only  one  kind  of  content  is  essential,  we  are  naturally  inclined  to  try  to 
eliminate  the  other,  and  we  have  in  this  confusion,  which  reappears  spon- 
taneously, and  without  any  discernible  indebtedness  to  Mallarme',  in  each  suc- 
cessive generation  of  post-romantic  poets,  the  real  basis  for  post-romantic  ob- 
scurantism. The  sound  idea  that  a  poem  is  more  than  its  rational  content  is  thus 
perverted  and  distorted. 


same  sense,  a  word  of  which  the  line,  as  we  have  defined  it,  is 
merely  a  syllable.  Such  a  word  is,  of  course,  composed  of  much 
more  than  the  sum  of  its  words  (as  one  normally  uses  the  term) 
and  its  syntax.  It  is  composed  of  an  almost  fluid  complex,  if  the 
adjective  and  the  noun  are  not  too  nearly  contradictory,  of  rela- 
tionships between  words  (in  the  normal  sense  of  the  term),  a 
relationship  involving  rational  content,  cadences,  rhymes,  juxta- 
positions, literary  and  other  connotations,  inversions,  and  so  on, 
almost  indefinitely.  These  relationships,  it  should  be  obvious, 
extend  the  poet's  vocabulary  incalculably.  They  partake  of  the 
fluidity  and  unpredictability  of  experience  and  so  provide  a 
means  of  treating  experience  with  precision  and  freedom.  If  the 
poet  does  not  wish,  as,  actually,  he  seldom  does,  to  reproduce  a 
given  experience  with  approximate  exactitude,  he  can  employ  the 
experience  as  a  basis  for  a  new  experience  that  will  be  just  as 
real,  in  the  sense  of  being  particular,  and  perhaps  more  valuable. 

Now  verse  is  more  valuable  than  prose  in  this  process  for  the 
simple  reasons  that  its  rhythms  are  faster  and  more  highly  organ- 
ized than  are  those  of  prose,  and  so  lend  themselves  to  a  greater 
complexity  and  compression  of  relationship,  and  that  the  inten- 
sity of  this  convention  renders  possible  a  greater  intensity  of 
other  desirable  conventions,  such  as  poetic  language  and  devices 
of  rhetoric.  The  writer  of  prose  must  substitute  bulk  for  this 
kind  of  intensity;  he  must  define  his  experience  ordinarily  by 
giving  all  of  its  past  history,  the  narrative  logic  leading  up  to  it, 
whereas  the  experiential  relations  given  in  a  good  lyric  poem, 
though  particular  in  themselves,  are  applicable  without  alteration 
to  a  good  many  past  histories.  In  this  sense,  the  lyric  is  general 
as  well  as  particular;  in  fact,  this  quality  of  transferable  or  gen- 
eralized experience  might  be  regarded  as  the  defining  quality  of 
lyrical  poetry. 

What  I  have  just  said  should  make  plain  the  difficulty  of  com- 
prehending a  poem  exactly  and  fully;  its  total  intention  may  be 
very  different  from  its  paraphrasable,  or  purely  logical  content.  If 
one  take,  for  example,  Mr.  Allen  Tate's  sonnet,  The  Subway, 
and  translate  it  into  good  scholarly  prose,  using  nothing  but  the 
rational  content  of  the  poem  as  a  reference,  one  will  find  the 


author  saying  that  as  a  result  of  his  ideas  and  of  his  metropolitan 
environment,  he  is  going  mad.  Now  as  a  matter  of  fact,  the  poem 
says  nothing  of  the  sort: 

Dark  accurate  plunger  down  the  successive  knell 
Of  arch  on  arch,  -where  ogives  hurst  a  red 
Reverberance  of  hail  upon  the  dead 
Thunder,  like  an  exploding  crucible! 
Harshly  articulate,  musical  steel  shell 
Of  angry  worship,  hurled  religiously 
Upon  your  business  of  humility 
Into  the  iron  forestries  of  hell! 

Till  broken  in  the  shift  of  quieter 

Dense  altitudes  tangential  of  your  steel, 

1  am  become  geometries— and  glut 

Expansions  like  a  blind  astronomer 

Dazed,  while  the  worldless  heavens  bulge  and  reel 

In  the  cold  revery  of  an  idiot. 

The  sonnet  indicates  that  the  author  has  faced  and  defined  the 
possibility  of  the  madness  that  I  have  mentioned  (a  possibility 
from  the  consideration  of  which  others  as  well  as  himself  may 
have  found  it  impossible  to  escape)  and  has  arrived  at  a  moral 
attitude  toward  it,  an  attitude  which  is  at  once  defined  and  com- 
municated by  the  poem.  This  attitude  is  defined  only  by  the  entire 
poem,  not  by  the  logical  content  alone;  it  is  a  matter  not  only  of 
logical  content,  but  of  feeling  as  well.  The  feeling  is  particular 
and  unparaphrasable,  but  one  may  indicate  the  nature  of  it 
briefly  by  saying  that  it  is  a  feeling  of  dignity  and  of  self-control 
in  the  face  of  a  situation  of  major  difficulty,  a  difficulty  which  the 
poet  fully  apprehends.  This  feeling  is  inseparable  from  what  we 
call  poetic  form,  or  unity,  for  the  creation  of  a  form  is  nothing 
more  nor  less  than  the  act  of  evaluating  and  shaping  (that  is, 
controlling)  a  given  experience.  It  should  be  obvious  that  any 
attempt  to  reduce  the  rational  content  of  such  a  poem  would 

tend  to  confuse  or  even  to  eliminate  the  feeling:  the  poem  con- 
sists in  the  relationship  between  the  two. 

To  reenforce  my  point,  I  shall  take  the  liberty  of  quoting  an- 
other poem,  this  one  by  Mr.  Howard  Baker,  in  which  something 
comparable  occurs.  The  title  is  Pont  Neuf: 

Henry  the  Fourth  rides  in  bronze, 

His  shoulders  curved  and  pensive,  thrust 

Enormously  into  electric 

Blazonments  of  a  Christmas  trust. 

Children  pass  him  aghast  and  pleased, 
Reflective  of  the  ftickerings 
Of  jerky  hears  and  clowns.  Alone, 
Astute  to  all  the  bickerings 

Of  age  and  death  rides  Henry  the  Grand. 
A  lean  tug  shudders  in  the  Seine; 
And  Notre  Dame  is  black,  a  relic 
Of  the  blood  of  other  men. 

Peace  to  the  other  men!  And  peace 
To  the  mind  that  has  no  century, 
And  sees  the  savage  pull  the  statue  down, 
And  down  the  bear  and  clown. 

The  spiritual  control  in  a  poem,  then,  is  simply  a  manifestation 
of  the  spiritual  control  within  the  poet,  and,  as  I  have  already 
indicated,  it  may  have  been  an  important  means  by  which  the 
poet  arrived  at  a  realization  of  spiritual  control.  This  conception 
must  not  be  confused  with  the  conception  of  the  poem  as  a  safety 
valve,  by  which  feeling  is  diverted  from  action,  by  which  the 
writer  escapes  from  an  attitude  by  pouring  it  into  his  work  and 
leaving  it  behind  him.  The  conception  which  I  am  trying  to  de- 
fine is  a  conception  of  poetry  as  a  technique  of  contemplation,  of 
comprehension,  a  technique  which  does  not  eliminate  the  need 


of  philosophy  or  of  religion,  but  which,  rather,  completes  and 
enriches  them. 

One  feels,  whether  rightly  or  wrongly,  a  correlation  between 
the  control  evinced  within  a  poem  and  the  control  within  the  poet 
behind  it.  The  laxity  of  the  one  ordinarily  appears  to  involve  lax- 
ity in  the  other.  The  rather  limp  versification  of  Mr.  Eliot  and  of 
Mr.  MacLeish  is  inseparable  from  the  spiritual  limpness  that  one 
feels  behind  the  poems,  as  the  fragmentary,  ejaculatory,  and  over- 
excited quality  of  a  great  many  of  the  poems  of  Hart  Crane  is 
inseparable  from  the  intellectual  confusion  upon  which  these 
particular  poems  seem  to  rest  (for  examples,  The  Dance,  Cape 
Hatteras,  and  Atlantis^).  Crane  possessed  great  energy,  but  his 
faculties  functioned  clearly  only  within  a  limited  range  of  experi- 
ence (Repose  of  Rivers,  Voyages  II,  Faustus  and  Helen  II).  Out- 
side of  that  range  he  was  either  numb  (My  Grandmother's  Love- 
letters  and  Harbor  Dawn)  or  unsure  of  himself  and  hence  un- 
certain in  his  detail  (as  in  The  River,  a  very  powerful  poem  in 
spite  of  its  poor  construction  and  its  quantities  of  bad  writing)  or 
both  (see  Indiana,  probably  one  of  the  worst  poems  in  modern 
literature).  Many  of  the  poems  of  Mr.  Eliot  and  of  Mr.  Mac- 
Leish could  be  reduced  by  paraphrase  to  about  the  same  thing  as 
my  paraphrase  of  Mr.  Tate's  sonnet;  the  difference  between 
them  and  Mr.  Tate  in  this  connection  is  that,  as  the  form  of 
nearly  all  of  their  poems  is  much  looser  to  start  with,  the  process 
of  paraphrasing  would  constitute  a  much  slighter  act  of  betrayal. 
And  we  must  not  forget  that  this  quality,  form,  is  not  something 
outside  the  poet,  something  "aesthetic/'  and  superimposed  upon 
his  moral  content;  it  is  essentially  a  part,  in  fact  it  may  be  the 
decisive  part,  of  the  moral  content,  even  though  the  poet  may  be 
arriving  at  the  final  perfection  of  the  condition  he  is  communicat- 
ing while  he  communicates  it  and  in  a  large  measure  as  a  result 
of  the  act  and  technique  of  communication.  For  the  communica- 
tion is  first  of  all  with  himself:  it  is,  as  I  have  said,  the  last  re- 
finement of  contemplation. 

I  should  pause  here  to  remark  that  many  writers  have  sought 
to  seize  the  fluidity  of  experience  by  breaking  down  the  limits 
of  form,  but  that  in  so  doing,  they  defeat  their  own  ends.  For, 


as  I  have  shown,  writing,  as  it  approaches  the  looseness  of  prose 
and  departs  from  the  strictness  of  verse,  tends  to  lose  the  capacity 
for  fluid  or  highly  complex  relationships  between  words;  lan- 
guage, in  short,  reapproaches  its  original  stiffness  and  generality; 
and  one  is  forced  to  recognize  the  truth  of  what  appears  a  para- 
dox, that  the  greatest  fluidity  of  statement  is  possible  where  the 
greatest  clarity  of  form  prevails.  It  is  hard  to  see  how  the  exist- 
ence of  such  a  work  as  Mr.  Joyce's  latest  creation2  can  be  any- 
thing but  precarious,  in  spite  of  its  multitudes  of  incidental  felici- 
ties; for  it  departs  from  the  primary  condition  of  prose— coherent 
and  cumulative  logic  or  narrative— without,  since  it  is,  finally, 
prose,  achieving  the  formal  precision  of  verse.  These  remarks 
should  not  be  construed,  however,  as  an  argument  against  free 
verse,  though,  with  proper  qualification,  they  could  be  brought 
to  bear  in  such  an  argument.  The  free  verse  that  is  really  verse— 
the  best,  that  is,  of  W.  C.  Williams,  H.  D.,  Miss  Moore,  Wallace 
Stevens,  and  Ezra  Pound— is,  in  its  peculiar  fashion,  the  antith- 
esis of  free,  and  the  evaluation  of  this  verse  is  a  difficult  prob- 
lem in  itself. 

Thus  we  see  that  the  poet,  in  striving  toward  an  ideal  of  poetic 
form  at  which  he  has  arrived  through  the  study  of  other  poets,  is 
actually  striving  to  perfect  a  moral  attitude  toward  that  range  of 
experience  of  which  he  is  aware.  Such  moral  attitudes  are  con- 
tagious from  poet  to  poet,  and,  within  the  life  of  a  single  poet, 
from  poem  to  poem.  The  presence  of  Hardy  and  Arnold,  let  us 
say,  in  so  far  as  their  successful  works  offer  us  models  and  their 
failures  warnings  or  unfulfilled  suggestions,  should  make  it  easier 
to  write  good  poetry;  they  should  not  only  aid  us,  by  providing 
standards  of  sound  feeling,  to  test  the  soundness  of  our  own 
poems,  but,  since  their  range  of  experience  is  very  wide,  they 
should  aid  us,  as  we  are  able  to  enter  and  share  their  experience, 
to  grow  into  regions  that  we  had  not  previously  mastered  or  per- 
haps even  discovered.  The  discipline  of  imitation  is  thus  valuable 
if  it  leads  to  understanding  and  assimilation.  Too  often  a  minor 
poet  or  other  reader  will  recognize  in  such  a  master  the  validity 
of  only  that  part  of  the  master's  experience  which  corresponds  to 

'Entitled  at  this  writing  (1935)  Work  in  Progress.  (Ultimately  published 
as  Finnegans  Wake.)  22 

his  own  limited  range,  and  will  rule  out  the  poetry  to  which  he 
is  consequently  numb  as  sentimental  or  otherwise  imperfect.  In- 
flexibility of  critical  opinion  in  such  matters  is  not  particularly 
conducive  to  growth. 

Random  experiment  may  have  a  related  value:  one  may  hit 
on  a  form  (perhaps  the  rough  idea  or  draft  of  a  form)  which  in- 
duces some  new  state  or  states  of  mind.  I  regard  as  fallacious  the 
notion  that  form  is  determined  by  a  precedent  attitude  or  a  prec- 
edent subject  matter,  at  least  invariably:  the  form  (that  is,  the 
general  idea  of  a  certain  type  of  form)  may  precede,  and  the 
attitude,  in  any  case,  is  never  definite  till  the  form  is  achieved.3 
It  does  not  follow  that  any  attitude  resulting  from  random  experi- 
ment is  intrinsically  desirable;  undesirable  attitudes,  like  desir- 
able, are  contagious  and  may  spread  widely;  it  is  here  that 
criticism  becomes  necessary.  A  failure,  however,  to  achieve  some- 
thing valuable  may  offer  a  valuable  suggestion  to  someone  else. 
The  poet  who  has  succeeded  once  or  twice  in  mastering  difficult 
and  central  emotions  and  in  recording  his  mastery  for  future 
reference  should  find  it  easier  to  succeed  again. 

I  am  not  endeavoring  in  the  two  foregoing  paragraphs  to  estab- 
lish poetry  as  a  substitute  for  philosophy  or  for  religion.  Religion 
is  highly  desirable  if  it  is  really  available  to  the  individual;  the 
study  of  philosophy  is  always  available  and  is  of  incalculable 
value  as  a  preliminary  and  as  a  check  to  activities  as  a  poet  and  as 
a  critic  (that  is,  as  an  intelligent  reader).  I  am,  then,  merely 
attempting  to  define  a  few  of  the  things  which  poetry  does. 

It  would  perhaps  be  wise  to  add  another  caution :  I  suffer  from 
no  illusion  that  any  man  who  can  write  a  good  poem  has  a  nat- 
urally sweet  moral  temper  or  that  the  man  who  has  written  three 
good  poems  is  a  candidate  for  canonization.  Literary  history  is 
packed  with  sickening  biographies.  But  it  is  worth  noting  that 
the  poetry  of  such  a  man,  say,  as  Rochester  (who  in  this  is  typical 
of  his  age)  displays  a  mastery  of  an  extremely  narrow  range  of 

8  As  a  single  example,  consider  the  manner  in  which  the  Petrarchan  experi- 
menters in  England,  most  of  them  feeble  poets  and  the  best  of  them  given  to 
empty  and  inflated  reasoning,  worked  out  the  technique  of  reasoning  elaoorately 
in  graceful  lyrical  verse  and  bequeathed  that  technique  to  the  17th  century: 
the  form  preceded  the  matter. 


experience,  and  that  his  moral  brutality  falls  almost  wholly  in 
those  regions  (nearly  every  region  save  that  of  worldly  manners, 
if  we  except  some  few  poems,  notably  Upon  Nothing,  Absent 
from  Thee,  and,  possibly,  A  Song  of  a  Young  Lady  to  Her 
Ancient  Lover,  in  which  last  there  is  a  curious  blending  of  the 
erotic  with  deep  moral  feeling)  with  which  his  poetry  fails  to 
deal  or  with  which  it  deals  badly. 

This  statement  requires  elucidation.  Rochester  frequently 
writes  of  his  debauchery,  and  sometimes  writes  well  of  it,  but  in 
the  best  poems  on  the  subject,  in  such  poems  as  The  Maimd 
Debauchee  and  Upon  Drinking  in  a  Bowl,  he  writes,  as  do  his 
contemporaries  in  the  comedy,  as  a  witty  and  satirical  gentleman : 
the  wit  inspired  by  the  material  is  mastered,  and  other  aspects  of 
the  material  are  ignored.  In  the  worst  poems  on  more  or  less 
similar  material  (for  examples,  the  numerous  lampoons  upon 
Charles  II  and  upon  Nell  Gwyn)  we  have  a  grossness  of  feeling 
comparable  to  that  of  his  worst  actions.  All  of  this,  however,  de- 
tracts not  in  the  least  from  the  quality  of  Rochester's  best  poetry, 
which  is  remarkably  fine;  Rochester  seldom  extends  the  stand- 
ards which  he  recognizes  into  fields  to  which  they  are  inap- 
plicable, and  hence  he  is  seldom  guilty  of  false  evaluation.  In 
reading  him,  one  is  aware  that  he  is  a  sound  and  beautiful  poet, 
and  that  there  are  greater  poets.  That  is  all  of  which  one  has  a 
right  to  be  aware.4 

If  a  poem,  in  so  far  as  it  is  good,  ^presents  the  comprehension 
on  a  moral  plane  of  a  given  experience,  it  is  only  fair  to  add  that 
some  experiences  offer  very  slight  difficulties  and  some  very  great, 
and  that  the  poem  will  be  the  most  valuable,  which,  granted  it 
achieves  formal  perfection,  represents  the  most  difficult  victory. 
In  the  great  tragic  poets,  such  as  Racine  or  Shakespeare,  one  feels 
that  a  victory  has  been  won  over  life  itself,  so  much  is  implicated 
in  the  subject  matter;  that  feeling  is  the  source  of  their  power 
over  us,  whereas  a  slighter  poet  will  absorb  very  little  of  our  ex- 
perience and  leave  the  rest  untouched. 

This  requisite  seems  to  be  ignored  in  a  large  measure  by  a  good 

*  The  Collected  Poems  of  John  Wilmot,  Earl  of  Rochester,  edited  by  John 
Hayward.  The  Nonesuch  Press,  16  Great  James  St.,  London,  W.C.  1926. 


many  contemporary  poets  of  more  or  less  mystical  tendencies, 
who  avoid  the  difficult  task  of  mastering  the  more  complex  forms 
of  experience  by  setting  up  a  theoretic  escape  from  them  and  by 
then  accepting  that  escape  with  a  good  deal  of  lyrical  enthusiasm. 
Such  an  escape  is  offered  us,  I  fear,  by  Hart  Crane,  in  one  of  the 
most  extraordinary  sections  of  his  volume,  The  Bridge,6  in  the 
poem  called  The  Dance,  and  such  escapes  are  often  employed  by 
Mr.  Yeats.  In  the  religious  poets  of  the  past,  one  encounters  this 
vice  very  seldom;  the  older  religions  are  fully  aware  that  the 
heart,  to  borrow  the  terms  of  a  poem  by  Janet  Lewis,  is  untranslat- 
able, whatever  may  be  true  of  the  soul,  and  that  one  can  escape 
from  the  claims  of  the  world  only  by  understanding  those  claims 
and  by  thus  accustoming  oneself  to  the  thought  of  eventually 
putting  them  by.  This  necessity  is  explicitly  the  subject  of  one  of 
Sidney's  greatest  sonnets,  Leave  me,  O  Love,  which  readiest  hut 
to  dust,  and  of  the  greatest  poem  by  George  Herbert,  Church 
Monuments;  one  can  find  it  elsewhere.  The  attitude  is  humane, 
and  does  not  belittle  nor  evade  the  magnitude  of  the  task;  it  is 
essentially  a  tragic  attitude. 

For  this  reason,  the  religious  fervor  of  Gerard  Hopkins,  of 
John  Donne,  or  of  George  Herbert  should  weaken  but  little  the 
force  of  most  of  their  poems  for  the  non-believer,  just  as  the 
deterministic  doctrines,  whatever  their  nature  and  extent,  to  be 
found  in  Hardy,  should  not  weaken  for  us  those  poems  which  do 
not  deal  too  pugnaciously  with  the  doctrines,  and  for  the  same 
reason.  Though  a  belief  in  any  form  of  determinism  should,  if 
the  belief  is  pushed  to  its  logical  ends,  eliminate  the  belief  in, 
and  consequently  the  functioning  of,  whatever  it  is  that  we  call 
the  will,  yet  there  is  no  trace  of  any  kind  of  disintegration  in 
Hardy's  poetic  style,  in  his  sense  of  form,  which  we  have  seen  to 
be,  so  far  as  writing  is  concerned,  identical  with  the  will  or  the 
ability  to  control  and  shape  one's  experience.  The  tragic  neces- 
sity of  putting  by  the  claims  of  the  world  without  the  abandon- 
ment of  self-control,  without  loss  of  the  ability  to  go  on  living, 
for  the  present,  intelligently  and  well,  is  just  as  definitely  the 
subject  of  Hardy's  poetry  as  of  Herbert's.  We  have  in  both  poets 

6  The  Bridge,  by  Hart  Crane,  Horace  Liveright:  N.  Y.:   1930. 

a  common  moral  territory  which  is  far  greater  than  are  the  theo- 
logical regions  which  they  do  not  share;  for,  on  the  one  hand, 
the  fundamental  concepts  of  morality  are  common  to  intelligent 
men  regardless  of  theological  orientation,  except  in  so  far  as 
morality  may  be  simply  denied  or  ignored,  and,  on  the  other 
hand,  the  Absolute  is  in  its  nature  inscrutable  and  offers  little 
material  for  speculation,  except  in  so  far  as  it  is  a  stimulus  to 
moral  speculation.  It  would  be  difficult,  I  think,  to  find  a  devo- 
tional poem  of  which  most  of  the  implications  were  not  moral 
and  universal.  So  with  Hardy:  his  determinism  was  mythic  and 
animistic  and  tended  to  dramatize  the  human  struggle,  whereas 
a  genuinely  rational  and  coherent  determinism  would  have 
eliminated  the  human  struggle.  He  was  thrown  back  upon  tradi- 
tional literary  and  folk  wisdom  in  working  out  moral  situations, 
and  for  these  situations  his  mythology  provided  a  new  setting, 
sometimes  magnificent,  sometimes  melodramatic,  but,  thanks  to 
its  rational  incompleteness,  not  really  destructive  of  a  working 
morality.  Like  many  another  man  who  has  been  unable  to  think 
clearly,  he  was  saved  by  the  inability  to  think  coherently:  had  he 
been  coherent,  he  would  probably  have  been  about  as  interesting 
as  Godwin;  as  it  is,  his  professed  beliefs  and  his  working  beliefs 
have  only  a  little  in  common,  and  the  former  damage  his  work 
only  in  a  fragmentary  way,  as  when  satires  of  circumstance  are 
dragged  into  a  novel  or  isolated  in  a  poem  to  prove  a  point  (and 
they  can  prove  nothing,  of  course)  and  usually  to  the  detriment 
of  coherent  feeling  and  understanding. 

Crane's  attitude,  on  the  other  hand,  often  suggests  a  kind  of 
theoretic  rejection  of  all  human  endeavor  in  favor  of  some 
vaguely  apprehended  but  ecstatically  asserted  existence  of  a 
superior  sort.  As  the  exact  nature  of  the  superior  experience  is 
uncertain,  it  forms  a  rather  uncertain  and  infertile  source  of 
material  for  exact  poetry;  one  can  write  poetry  about  it  only  by 
utilizing  in  some  way  more  or  less  metaphorical  the  realm  of  ex- 
perience from  which  one  is  trying  to  escape;  but  as  one  is  en- 
deavoring to  escape  from  this  realm,  not  to  master  it  and  under- 
stand it,  one's  feelings  about  it  are  certain  to  be  confused,  and 
one's  imagery  drawn  from  it  is  bound  to  be  largely  formulary  and 

devoid  of  meaning.  That  is,  in  so  far  as  one  endeavors  to  deal 
with  the  Absolute,  not  as  a  means  of  ordering  one's  moral  per- 
ception but  as  the  subject  itself  of  perception,  one  will  tend  to 
say  nothing,  despite  the  multiplication  of  words.  In  The  Dance 
there  seems  to  be  an  effort  to  apply  to  each  of  two  mutually  ex- 
lusive  fields  the  terms  of  the  other.  This  is  a  vice  of  which 
i  \ochester  was  not  guilty. 

Crane's  best  work,  such  as  Repose  of  Rivers  and  Voyages  II, 
is  not  confused,  but  one  feels  that  the  experience  is  curiously 
limited  and  uncomplicated:  it  is  between  the  author,  isolated 
from  most  human  complications,  and  Eternity.  Crane  becomes  in 
such  poems  a  universal  symbol  of  the  human  mind  in  a  par- 
ticular situation,  a  fact  which  is  the  source  of  his  power,  but  of 
the  human  mind  in  very  nearly  the  simplest  form  of  that  situ- 
ation, a  fact  which  is  the  source  of  his  limitation. 

Objective  proof  of  this  assertion  cannot  be  found  in  the  poems, 
any  more  than  proof  of  the  opposite  quality  can  be  found  in 
Hardy;  it  is  in  each  poet  a  matter  of  feeling  invading  the  poetry 
mainly  by'Vvay  of  the  non-paraphrasable  content:  one  feels  the 
fragility  of  Crane's  finest  work,  just  as  one  feels  the  richness  of 
Hardy's.  Hardy  is  able  to  utilize,  for  example,  great  ranges  of 
literary,  historical,  and  other  connotations  in  words  and  cadences; 
one  feels  behind  each  word  the  history  of  the  word  and  the  gen- 
erations of  men  who  embodied  that  history;  Hardy  gets  somehow 
at  the  wealth  of  the  race.  It  should  be  observed  again  how  the 
moral  discipline  is  involved  in  the  literary  discipline,  how  it  be- 
comes, at  times,  almost  a  matter  of  living  philology.  From  the 
greater  part  of  this  wealth  Crane  appears  to  be  isolated  and  con- 
tent to  remain  isolated.  His  isolation,  like  Hardy's  immersion, 
was  in  part  social  and  unavoidable,  but  a  clearer  mind  and  a  more 
fixed  intention  might  have  overcome  much  of  the  handicap. 

I  should  like  to  forestall  one  possible  objection  to  the  theory 
of  poetry  which  I  am  trying  to  elucidate.  Poetry,  as  a  moral  dis- 
cipline, should  not  be  regarded  as  one  more  means  of  escape. 
That  is,  moral  responsibility  should  not  be  transferred  from 
action  to  paper  in  the  face  of  a  particular  situation.  Poetry,  if  pur- 
sued either  by  the  poet  or  by  the  reader,  in  the  manner  which 

I  have  suggested,  should  offer  a  means  of  enriching  one's  aware- 
ness of  human  experience  and  of  so  rendering  greater  the  pos- 
sibility of  intelligence  in  the  course  of  future  action;  and  it 
should  offer  likewise  a  means  of  inducing  certain  more  or  less 
constant  habits  of  feeling,  which  should  render  greater  the  pos- 
sibility of  one's  acting,  in  a  future  situation,  in  accordance  wit! 
the  findings  of  one's  improved  intelligence.  It  should,  in  othe* 
words,  increase  the  intelligence  and  strengthen  the  moral  temper; 
these  effects  should  naturally  be  carried  over  into  action,  if, 
through  constant  discipline,  they  are  made  permanent  acqui- 
sitions. If  the  poetic  discipline  is  to  have  steadiness  and  direction, 
it  requires  an  antecedent  discipline  of  ethical  thinking  and  of  at 
least  some  ethical  feeling,  which  may  be  in  whole  or  in  part  the 
gift  of  religion  or  of  a  social  tradition,  or  which  may  be  largely  the 
result  of  individual  acquisition  by  way  of  study.  The  poetic  dis- 
cipline includes  the  antecedent  discipline  and  more:  it  is  the 
richest  and  most  perfect  technique  of  contemplation. 

This  view  of  poetry  in  its  general  outline  is  not  original,  but  is 
a  restatement  of  ideas  that  have  been  current  in  English  criticism 
since  the  time  of  Sidney,  that  have  appeared  again  in  most  of 
the  famous  apologists  for  poetry  since  Sidney,  especially  in 
Arnold  and  in  Newman.  In  summarizing  these  ideas,  I  have 
merely  endeavored  to  illuminate  a  few  of  the  more  obscure  re- 
lationships and  to  dispose  of  them  in  such  a  way  as  to  prepare 
the  reader  for  various  analyses  of  poetic  method  which  I  intend, 
in  other  essays,  to  undertake.  Poetic  morality  and  poetic  feeling 
are  inseparable;  feeling  and  technique,  or  structure,  are  insepa- 
rable. Technique  has  laws  which  govern  poetic  (and  perhaps 
more  general)  morality  more  widely  than  is  commonly  recog- 
nized. It  is  my  intention  to  examine  them. 



An  Analytical  Survey  of  Its  Structural  Methods, 
Exclusive  of  Meter 

DURING  THE  SECOND  and  third  decades  of  the  twentieth  century, 
the  chief  poetic  talent  of  the  United  States  took  certain  new 
directions,  directions  that  appear  to  me  in  the  main  regrettable. 
The  writers  between  Robinson  and  Frost,  on  the  one  hand,  and 
Allen  Tate  and  Howard  Baker  on  the  other,  who  remained  rela- 
tively traditional  in  manner  were  with  few  exceptions  minor  or 
negligible;^the  more  interesting  writers,  as  I  shall  endeavor  to 
show  in  these  pages,  were  misguided,  and  in  discussing  them  I 
shall  have  little  to  say  of  their  talents,  their  ineliminable  virtues, 
but  shall  rather  take  these  for  granted. 

In  order  that  I  may  evaluate  the  new  structural  methods,  I 
shall  have  first  to  describe  at  least  briefly  the  old.  Inasmuch  as 
a  wider  range  of  construction  is  possible  in  the  short  poem  than 
in  any  of  the  longer  literary  forms,  I  shall  deal  with  principles 
that  are  fundamental  to  all  literary  composition,  and  shall  here 
and  there  have  recourse  to  illustrations  drawn  from  the  novel  or 
perhaps  from  the  drama.  The  virtues  of  the  traditional  modes 
of  construction  will  be  indicated  chiefly  in  connection  with  my 
discussion  of  the  defects  of  the  recent  experimental  modes. 


KENNETH  BURKE  HAS  NAMED  and  described  this  method  without 
evaluating  it.1  It  is  the  simplest  and  most  primitive  method  pos- 

1  In  Counterstatement  (Harcourt,  Brace  and  Co.:  1932). 

sible,  and  is  still  in  common  use;  if  limited  to  a  short  lyrical  form, 
it  may  still  be  highly  effective.  It  consists  in  a  restatement  in  suc- 
cessive stanzas  of  a  single  theme,  the  terms,  or  images,  being 
altered  in  each  restatement.  Two  of  the  finest  poems  in  the  form 
are  Nashe's  poem  on  the  plague  (Adieu!  Farewell  earth's  Hiss) 
and  Raleigh's  poem  entitled  The  Lie.  In  such  a  poem  there  is  no 
rational  necessity  for  any  order  of  sequence,  the  order  being  deter- 
mined wholly  by  the  author's  feeling  about  the  graduation  of 
importance  or  intensity.  Nevertheless,  such  a  poem  rests  on  a 
formulable  logic,  however  simple;  that  is,  the  theme  can  be  para- 
phrased in  general  terms.  Such  a  paraphrase,  of  course,  is  not  the 
equivalent  of  a  poem:  a  poem  is  more  than  its  paraphrasable  con- 
tent. But,  as  we  shall  eventually  see,  many  poems  cannot  be  para- 
phrased and  are  therefore  defective. 

The  method  of  repetition  is  essentially  the  same  today  as  it 
has  always  been,  if  we  confine  our  attention  to  the  short  poem. 
Of  recent  years,  however,  there  has  been  a  tendency  to  extend 
it  into  longer  forms,  with  unfortunate  results.  Such  extension  is 
the  chief  method  of  Whitman,  and  results  in  a  form  both  lax 
and  diffuse.  Such  extension  occurs  even  in  many  modern  attempts 
at  narrative,  both  in  prose  and  in  verse.  To  illustrate  what  I  say, 
I  shall  venture  to  summarize  the  structural  defects  of  the  narra- 
tive poetry  of  Robinson  Jeffers: 

Mr.  Jeffers  is  theologically  some  kind  of  monist.  He  envisages, 
as  did  Wordsworth,  nature  as  Deity;  but  his  Nature  is  the  Nature 
of  the  text-book  in  physics  and  not  that  of  the  rambling  botanist 
—Mr.  Jeffers  seems  to  have  taken  the  terminology  of  modern 
physics  more  literally  than  it  is  meant  by  its  creators.  Nature,  or 
God,  is  thus  a  kind  of  self-sufficient  mechanism,  of  which  man  is 
a  product,  but  from  which  man  is  cut  off  by  his  humanity  (just 
what  gave  rise  to  this  humanity,  which  is  absolutely  severed  from 
all  communication  with  God,  is  left  for  others  to  decide) :  as  there 
is  no  mode  of  communication  with  God  or  from  God,  God  is 
praised  adequately  only  by  the  screaming  demons  that  make  up 
the  atom.  Man,  if  he  accepts  this  dilemma  as  necessary,  can 
choose  between  two  modes  of  action :  he  may  renounce  God  and 


rely  upon  his  humanity,  or  he  may  renounce  his  humanity  and 
rely  upon  God. 

In  the  narratives  preceding  Cawdor2  and  in  most  of  the  lyrics, 
Mr.  Jeffers  preaches  the  second  choice.  In  Cawdor  and  in  Thur- 
so's  Landing*  he  has  attempted  a  compromise:  that  is,  while 
the  tragic  characters  recognize  that  the  second  choice  would  be 
the  more  reasonable,  they  make  the  first  in  a  kind  of  half-hearted 
stubbornness.  They  insist  on  living,  but  without  knowing  why, 
and  without  any  good  to  which  to  look  forward  save  the  final 
extinction  in  God,  when  it  comes  ,in  God's  time.  Their  stubborn- 
ness is  meaningless. 

Life  as  such  is  incest,  an  insidious  and  destructive  evil.  So 
much,  says  Mr.  Jeffers  by  implication,  for  Greek  and  Christian 
ethics.  Now  the  mysticism  of  such  a  man  as  San  Juan  de  la  Cruz 
offers  at  least  the  semblance  of  a  spiritual,  a  human,  discipline  as 
a  preliminary  to  union  with  Divinity;  but  for  Mr.  Jeffers  a  simple 
and  mechanical  device  lies  always  ready;  namely,  suicide,  a  de- 
vice to  which  he  has,  I  believe,  never  resorted. 

In  refusing  to  take  this  step,  however,  Mr.  Jeffers  illustrates 
one  of  a  very  interesting  series  of  romantic  compromises.  The 
romantic  of  the  ecstatically  pantheistic  type  denies  life  yet  goes 
on  living;4  nearly  all  romantics  decry  the  intellect  and  philosophy, 
yet  they  offer  justifications,  necessarily  incoherent  but  none  the 
less  rational  in  intention,  of  their  attitude,  they  are  prone  to  be- 
little literary  technique,  yet  they  write,  and  too  often  with  small 
efficiency;  they  preach,  in  the  main,  the  doctrine  of  moral 
equivalence,  yet  their  every  action,  whether  private  or  literary, 
since  it  rests  on  a  choice,  is  a  denial  of  the  doctrine.  Not  all 
romantics  are  guilty  of  all  these  forms  of  confusion,  but  the 
romantic  who  is  guilty  of  all  is  more  consistent  thah  is  he  who 
is  guilty  only  of  some,  for  all  inhere  in  each  from  a  rational 
standpoint.  And  Mr.  Jeffers,  having  decried  human  life,  and 
having  denied  the  worth  of  the  rules  of  the  game,  endeavors  to 

*  Cawdor  and  Other  Poems,  by  Robinson  Jeffers.  Horace  Liveright,  New 
York,  1928. 

'TJwrso's  Landing,  same.  Liveright  Inc.,  New  York,  1932. 

4  Hart  Crane,  unlike  Mr.  Jeffers,  demonstrated  the  seriousness  of  his  convic- 
tion, but  the  demonstration  did  nothing  to  clarify  his  concepts. 

write  narrative  and  dramatic  poems,  poems,  in  other  words,  deal- 
ing with  people  who  are  playing  the  game.  Jesus,  the  hero  of  Dear 
Judas,6  speaking  apparently  for  Mr.  Jeffers,  says  that  the  secret 
reason  for  the  doctrine  of  forgiveness  is  that  all  men  are  driven 
to  act  as  they  do,  by  the  mechanism-God,  that  they  are  entirely 
helpless;  yet  he  adds  in  the  next  breath  that  this  secret  must  br* 
guarded,  for  if  it  were  given  out,  men  would  run  amuck— the^ 
would  begin  acting  differently.6 

The  Women  at  Point  Sur7  is  a  perfect  laboratory  of  Mr.  Jeffers' 
philosophy  and  a  perfect  example  of  his  narrative  method.  Bar- 
clay, an  insane  divine,  preaches  Mr.  Jeffers'  religion,  and  his  dis- 
ciples, acting  upon  it,  become  emotional  mechanisms,  lewd  and 
twitching  conglomerations  of  plexuses,  their  humanity  annulled. 
Human  experience  in  these  circumstances,  having  necessarily 
and  according  to  the  doctrine,  no  meaning,  there  can  be  no  neces- 
sary sequence  of  events:  every  act  is  equivalent  to  every  other; 
every  act  is  devoid  of  consequence  and  occurs  in  a  perfect  vac- 
uum; most  of  the  incidents  could  be  shuffled  about  into  different 
sequences  without  violating  anything  save  Mr.  Jeffers'  sense  of 
their  relative  intensity. 

Since  the  poem  is  his,  of  course,  this  sense  may  appear  a  legiti- 
mate criterion;  the  point  is,  that  this  is  not  a  narrative  nor  a 
dramatic  but  is  a  lyrical  criterion.  A  successful  lyrical  poem  of 
one  hundred  and  seventy-five  pages  is  unlikely,  for  the  essence  of 
lyrical  expression  is  concentration;  but  it  is  at  least  hypotheti- 
cally  possible.  The  difficulty  here  is  that  the  lyric  achieves  its 
effect  by  the  generalization  of  experience  (that  is,  the  motiva- 
tion of  the  lyric  is  stated  or  implied  in  a  summary  form,  and  is 
ordinarily  not  given  in  detailed  narrative)  and  by  the  concentra- 
tion of  expression;  lyrical  poetry  tends  to  be  expository.  Narra- 
tive can  survive  fairly  well  without  distinction  of  style,  provided 
the  narrative  logic  is  complete  and  compelling,  as  in  the  work* 

•Dear  Judas  (Horace  Liveright:  1929). 

*  This  dilemma  is  not  new  in  American  literature.  In  the  eighteenth  century, 
Jonathan  Edwards  accomplished  a  revival  in  the  Puritan  Church,  that  is,  in- 
duced large  numbers  of  sinners  to  repent  and  enter  the  church,  by  preaching 
the  doctrine  of  election  and  the  inability  to  repent. 

''The  Women  at  Point  Sur  (Boni  and  Liveright:  1927). 


of  Balzac,  though  this  occurs  most  often  in  prose.  Now  Mr. 
Jeffers,  as  I  have  pointed  out,  has  abandoned  narrative  logic  with 
the  theory  of  ethics,  and  he  has  never,  in  addition,  achieved  a 
distinguished  style:  his  writing,  line  by  line,  is  pretentious  trash. 
There  are  a  few  good  phrases,  but  they  are  very  few,  and  none  is 

Mr.  Jeffers  has  no  method  of  sustaining  his  lyric,  then,  other 
than  the  employment  of  an  accidental  (that  is,  a  non-narrative 
and  repetitious)  series  of  anecdotes  (that  is,  of  details  that  are 
lyrically  impure,  details  clogged  with  too  much  information  to 
be  able  to  function  properly  as  lyrical  details);  his  philosophical 
doctrine  and  his  artistic  dilemma  alike  decree  that  these  shall  be 
at  an  hysterical  pitch  of  feeling.  By  this  method,  Mr.  Jeffers  con- 
tinually lays  claim  to  extreme  feeling,  which  has  no  support 
whether  of  structure  or  of  detail  and  which  is  therefore  simply  un- 
mastered  and  self-inflicted  hysteria. 

Cawdor  contains  a  plot  which  in  its  rough  outlines  might  be 
sound,  and  Cawdor  likewise  contains  his  best  poetry:  the  lines 
describing  the  seals  at  dawn,  especially,  are  very  good.  But  the 
plot  is  blurred  for  lack  of  style  and  for  lack  of  moral  intelligence 
on  the  part  of  the  author.  As  in  Thurso's  Landing,  of  which  the 
writing  is  much  worse,  the  protagonists  desire  to  live  as  the  result 
of  a  perfectly  unreasoning  and  meaningless  stubbornness,  and 
their  actions  are  correspondingly  obscure.  Mr.  Jeffers  will  not 
even  admit  the  comprehensible  motive  of  cowardice.  In  The 
Tower  beyond  Tragedy,8  Mr.  Jeffers  takes  one  of  the  very  best 
of  ready-made  plots,  the  Orestes-Clytemnestra  situation,  the 
peculiar  strength  of  which  lies  in  the  fact  that  Orestes  is  forced 
to  choose  between  two  crimes,  the  murder  of  his  mother  and  the 
failure  to  avenge  his  father.  But  at  the  very  last  moment,  in  Mr. 
Jeffers'  version,  Orestes  is  converted  to  Mr.  Jeffers'  religion  and 
goes  off  explaining  to  Electra  (who  has  just  tried  to  seduce  him) 
that  though  men  may  think  he  is  fleeing  from  the  furies,  he  is 
really  doing  no  more  than  drift  up  to  the  mountains  to  medi- 
tate on  the  stars.  And  the  preceding  action  is,  of  course,  rendered 

*  In  the  volume  called  The  Women  at  Point  Sur,  previously  mentioned. 


Dear  Judas  is  a  kind  of  dilution  of  The  Women  at  Point  Stir, 
with  Jesus  as  Barclay,  and  with  a  less  detailed  background.  The 
Loving  Shepherdess9  deals  with  a  girl  who  knows  herself  doomed 
to  die  at  a  certain  time  in  child-birth,  and  who  wanders  over  the 
countryside  caring  for  a  small  and  diminishing  flock  of  sheep  in 
an  anguish  of  devotion.  The  events  here  also  are  anecdotal  and 
reversible,  and  the  feeling  is  lyrical  or  nothing.  The  heroine  is 
turned  cruelly  from  door  to  door,  and  the  sheep  fall  one  by  one 
before  the  reader's  eyes,  the  sheep  and  the  doors  constituting  the 
matter  of  the  narrative;  until  finally  the  girl  dies  in  a  ditch  in  an 
impossible  effort  to  give  birth  to  hei  child. 


BY  THE  LOGICAL  METHOD  of  composition,  I  mean  simply  explicitly 
rational  progression  from  one  detail  to  another:  the  poem  has  a 
clearly  evident  expository  structure.  Marvell's  poem  To  His  Coy 
Mistress,  as  Mr.  T.  S.  Eliot  has  said,  has  something  of  the  struc- 
ture of  a  syllogism,  if  the  relationships  only  of  the  three  para- 
graphs to  each  other  be  considered:10  within  each  paragraph  the 
structure  is  repetitive.  The  logical  method  is  a  late  and  sophisti- 
cated procedure  that  in  Europe  is  most  widespread  in  the  six- 
teenth and  seventeenth  centuries,  though  it  appears  earlier  and 
continues  later.  It  was  exploited,  mastered,  and  frequently  de- 
bauched by  the  English  Metaphysical  School,  for  example, 
though  it  was  not  invariably  employed  by  them. 

Sometimes  in  the  Metaphysical  poets,  frequently  in  the  drama- 
tists contemporary  with  them,  and  far  too  often  in  the  poetry  of 
the  twentieth  century,  the  logical  structure  becomes  a  shell  empty 
of  logic  but  exploiting  certain  elusive  types  of  feeling.  The  forms 
of  pseudo-logic  I  shall  reserve  for  treatment  under  another  head- 

By  stretching  our  category  a  trifle  we  may  include  under  this 
heading  poems  implicitly  rational,  provided  the  implications  of 
rationality  are  at  all  points  clear.  William  Carlos  Williams'  poem, 

*  In  the  volume  entitled  Dear  Judas. 

10  Selected  Essays,  by  T.  S.  Eliot.  Harcourt,  Brace  and  Co.,  New  York:  1932. 


On  the  Road  to  the  Contagious  Hospital,  may  serve  as  an  ex- 
ample.11 On  the  other  hand,  Rimbaud's  Larme,  a  poem  which, 
like  that  of  Dr.  Williams,  describes  a  landscape,  is  unf ormulable : 
it  is  an  example  of  what  Kenneth  Burke  has  called  qualitative 
progression,  a  type  of  procedure  that  I  shall  consider  later.  The 
poem  by  Williams,  though  its  subject  is  simple,  is  a  poem  of 
directed  meditation;  the  poem  by  Rimbaud  is  one  of  non-rational 
and  hallucinatory  terror. 


NARRATIVE  ACHIEVES  coherence  largely  through  a  feeling  that 
the  events  of  a  sequence  are  necessary  parts  of  a  causative  chain, 
or  plausible  interferences  with  a  natural  causative  chain.  In  this 
it  is  similar  to  logic.  The  hero,  being  what  he  is  and  in  a  given 
situation,  seems  to  act  naturally  or  unnaturally;  if  his  action 
seems  natural,  and  is  in  addition  reasonably  interesting  and,  from 
an  ethical  point  of  view,  important,  the  narrative  is  in  the  main 
successful.*.  To  this  extent,  Mr.  Kenneth  Burke  is  wrong,  I  be- 
lieve, in  censuring  nineteenth  century  fiction  for  its  concern  with 
what  he  calls  the  psychology  of  the  hero  as  opposed  to  the  con- 
cern with  the  psychology  of  the  audience:12  by  the  former,  he 
means  the  plausibility  of  the  portrait;  by  the  latter  the  concern 
with  those  rhetorical  devices  which  please  and  surprise  the  reader, 
devices,  for  example,  of  the  type  of  which  Fielding  was  a  con- 
summate master.  Mr.  Burke  overlooks  the  facts  that  rhetoric  can- 
not exist  without  a  subject  matter,  and  that  the  subject  matter  of 
fiction  is  narration,  that,  in  short,  the  author's  most  important  in- 
strument for  controlling  the  attitude  of  the  audience  is  precisely 
the  psychology  of  the  hero.  Mr.  Burke  is  right,  however,  in  that 
there  are  other,  less  important  but  necessary  means  of  controll- 
ing the  attitude  of  the  audience,  and  that  most  of  the  standard  fic- 
tion of  the  nineteenth  century,  sometimes  for  neglecting  them, 
sometimes  for  utilizing  them  badly,  suffers  considerably. 

Mr.  Burke,  in  his  own  compositions,  with  a  precocious  security 

11  Spring  and  All,  bv  William  Carlos  Williams.  Contact  Editions,  Paris,  The 
poem  is  quoted  in  full  in  the  essay  on  Poetic  Convention,  in  this  book. 
u  In  the  volume  called  Counterstatement,  already  mentioned. 


that  is  discouraging,  reverses  the  Victorian  formula:  in  his  novel, 
Towards  a  Better  Life,13  he  concentrates  on  the  sentence,  or 
occasionally  on  the  paragraph,  that  is,  on  the  incidental.  He  has 
attained  what  appears  to  be  his  chief  end:  he  has  made  himself 
guotable.  His  book  contains  some  good  aphorisms  and  many  bad; 
it  contains  some  excellent  interludes,  such  as  the  fable  of  the 
scholar  with  the  face  like  a  vegetable,  or  the  paragraph  on  Vol- 
taire. Any  of  these  felicities  may  be  removed  from  their  context 
with  perfect  impunity,  for  there  really  is  no  context:  Towards  a 
Better  Life,  as  a  whole,  is  duller  than  Thackeray.  On  the  other 
hand,  such  writers  as  Jane  Austen  and  Edith  Wharton  are  likely 
to  be  wittier  than  Mr.  Burke;  but  their  wit,  like  that  of  Moli&re, 
is  not  often  separable  from  their  context,  since  it  is  primarily  a 
context  that  they  are  creating. 

Short  sketches  in  prose  often  deal  with  the  revelation  of  a 
situation  instead  of  with  the  development  of  one.  The  result  is 
static,  but  if  the  prose  is  skillful  and  does  not  run  to  excessive 
length,  it  may  be  successful:  Cunninghame  Graham's  At  Dal- 
mary14  is  a  fine  example.  Other  things  being  equal,  however 
(which,  of  course,  they  never  are),  action  should  lend  power.  In 
a  short  narrative  poem  it  matters  little  whether  the  situation  be 
revealed  or  developed:  the  force  of  the  poetic  language  can  raise 
the  statement  to  great  impressiveness  either  way;  in  fact,  the 
process  of  revelation  itself  may  take  on  in  a  short  poem  a  quality 
profoundly  dramatic.15  The  famous  English  Ballad,  Edward,  Mr. 
E.  A.  Robinson's  Luke  Havergal,™  Her  Going17  by  Agnes  Lee, 
are  all  examples  of  revelation  at  a  high  level  of  excellence.  Mr. 
Robinson's  Eros  Turannos™  is  a  fine  example  of  development 
within  a  short  form. 

M  Towards  a  Better  Life,  by  Kenneth  Burke.  Harcourt,  Brace  and  Co. :  New 
York:  1932. 

14  Hope,  by  Cunninghame  Graham.  Duckeworth,  London. 

15  It  is  curious  that  this  procedure  if  employed  in  a  long  form,  such  as  the 
novel  or  the  play,  tends  to  degenerate  into  bald  melodrama;  it  is  the  essential, 
for  example,  of  detective  fiction.  On  the  other  hand,  it  is  in  a  large  part  the 
form  of  The  Ambassadors,  the  revelation  in  this,  however,  motivating  further 

ie  Collected  Poems,  by  E.  A.  Robinson:  Macmillan. 

17  Faces  and  Open  Doors,  by  Agnes  Lee.  R.  F.  Seymour,  Chicago,  1932. 


The  coherence  of  character  may  be  demonstrated,  as  in  the 
novels  of  Henry  James,  in  a  closed,  or  dramatic  plot,  in  which 
personage  acts  upon  personage,  and  in  which  accident  and  me- 
chanical change  play  little  part;  or  the  personage  may  prove  him- 
self coherent  in  a  struggle  with  pure  accident,  as  in  Defoe,  who 
pits  Moll  Flanders  against  the  wilderness  of  London,  or  as  in 
Melville,  who  pits  Ahab  against  the  complex  wilderness  of  the 
sea,  of  brute  nature,  and  of  moral  evil;  or  there  may  be,  as  in 
Mrs.  Wharton,  a  merging  of  the  two  extremes:  in  Mrs.  Wharton, 
the  impersonal  adversary  is  usually  represented  by  a  human  being 
such  as  Undine  Spragg  or  the  elder  Raycie,  who  is  morally  or 
intellectually  undeveloped,  so  that  the  protagonist  is  unable  to 
cope  with  him  in  human  terms.  The  novel  is  not  the  drama,  and 
to  demand  of  it  dramatic  plot  appears  to  me  unreasonable.  The 
form  permits  the  treatment  of  a  great  deal  of  material  impossible 
in  the  drama,  and  the  material,  since  it  is  important  in  human 
life,  ought  to  be  treated.  It  is  certain,  however,  that  narrative  re- 
quires coherence  of  character,  and  coherence  necessitates  change. 
Fielding  is  dull  in  bulk  because  his  characters  do  not  develop  and 
because  his  incidents  are  without  meaning  except  as  anecdotal 
excuses  for  the  exercise  of  style.  Defoe's  rhetoric  is  less  agile,  but 
his  conception  is  more  solid. 

In  addition  to  having  greater  range,  the  novel  of  accident  may 
have  advantages  over  the  dramatic  novel  which  are  perhaps  too 
seldom  considered.  The  author  is  less  likely  to  be  restricted  to 
the  exact  contents  of  the  minds  of  his  characters,  and  so  he  may 
have  greater  opportunity  to  exhibit,  directly  or  indirectly,  his  own 
attitudes,  which,  in  most  cases,  may  be  more  complex  than  the 
attitudes  of  his  characters.  Fielding,  for  example,  would  have  been 
seriously  embarrassed  to  treat  Tom  Jones  from  the  point  of  view 
of  Tom  Jones.  Melville  accomplishes  even  more  with  his  per- 
sonal freedom  than  does  Fielding.  The  superstition  that  the  au- 
thor should  write  wholly  from  within  the  minds  of  his  characters 
appears  to  have  grown  up  largely  as  a  reaction  to  the  degenera- 
tion of  Fieldingese  among  the  Victorians,  notably  Thackeray  and 
Dickens,  and  perhaps  Meredith,  and  perhaps  in  part  as  a  result 
of  the  achievements  in  the  newer  mode  by  Flaubert  and  by  Henry 


James.  Flaubert  is  misleading,  however,  in  that  the  perfection  and 
subtlety  of  his  style  introduces  an  important  element  from  with- 
out the  consciousness  of  the  character  in  a  manner  that  may  be 
overlooked;  and  James  is  misleading  not  only  in  this  respect  but 
because  his  characters  are  usually  almost  as  highly  developed  as 
the  author  himself,  so  that  the  two  are  frequently  all  but  indis- 
tinguishable. The  superstition  is  reduced  to  absurdity  in  some  of 
Mr.  Hemingway's  short  stories  about  prize-fighters  and  bull- 
fighters, whose  views  of  their  own  experience  are  about  as  valu- 
able as  the  views  of  the  Sunbonnet  Babies  or  of  Little  Black 

Theoretically,  that  fictional  convention  should  be  most  desir- 
able which  should  allow  the  author  to  deal  with  a  character  from 
a  position  formally  outside  the  mind  of  the  character,  and  which 
should  allow  him  to  analyze,  summarize,  and  arrange  material, 
as  author,  and  without  regard  to  the  way  in  which  the  character 
might  be  supposed  to  have  perceived  the  material  originally. 
This  procedure  should  permit  the  greatest  possibility  of  rhetori- 
cal range;  should  permit  the  direct  play  of  the  intelligence  of 
the  author,  over  and  above  the  intelligence  and  limitations  of  the 
character;  it  should  permit  the  greatest  possible  attention  to  what 
Mr.  Kenneth  Burke  has  called  the  psychology  of  the  audience  in 
so  far  as  it  is  separable  from  what  he  calls  the  psychology  of  the 
hero:  Mr.  Burke,  in  fact,  in  his  own  novel,  Towards  a  Better  Life, 
employs  a  modified  stream-of-consciousness  convention,  thus 
limiting  the  rhetorical  range  very  narrowly,  and  confining  him- 
self to  a  very  narrow  aspect  of  the  psychology  of  the  hero,  so  far 
as  the  construction  of  his  work  as  a  whole  is  concerned,  and  in  a 
large  measure  as  regards  all  relationships  beyond  those  within  the 
individual  sentence.  The  convention  which  I  should  recommend 
is  that  of  the  first-rate  biography  or  history  (Johnson's  Lives,  for 
example,  or  Hume,  or  Macaulay)  instead  of  the  various  post- 
Joycean  conventions  now  prevalent.  Exposition  may  be  made  an 
art;  so  may  historical  summary;  in  fact,  the  greatest  prose  in  exist- 
ence is  that  of  the  greatest  expository  writers.  The  novel  should 
not  forego  these  sources  of  strength.  If  it  be  argued  that  the  first 
aim  of  the  novelist  is  to  reach  a  public  from  whom  the  great  ex- 


positors  are  isolated  by  their  very  virtues,  then  the  novelist  is  in 
exactly  that  measure  unworthy  of  serious  discussion.  My  recom- 
mendation is  not  made  wholly  in  the  absence  of  examples,  how- 
ever: allowances  made  for  individual  limitations  of  scope  and  de- 
fects of  procedure,  Jane  Austen,  Melville,  Hawthorne,  Henry 
James,  Fielding,  and  Defoe  may  be  called  to  serve;  Edith  Whar- 
ton  at  her  best,  in  such  performances  as  Bunner  Sisters  and  False 
Dawn,  as  The  Valley  of  Decision  and  The  Age  of  Innocence,  is 
nearly  the  perfect  example. 


EVERY  LINE  or  passage  of  good  poetry,  every  good  poetic  phrase, 
communicates  a  certain  quality  of  feeling  as  well  as  a  certain 
paraphrasable  content.  It  would  be  possible  to  write  a  poem  un- 
impeachable as  to  rational  sequence,  yet  wholly  inconsecutive 
in  feeling  or  even  devoid  of  feeling.  Meredith  and  Browning 
often  display  both  defects.  Chapman's  Hero  and  Leander  is  a 
rational  continuation  of  Marlowe's  beginning,  but  the  break  in 
feeling  is  notorious. 

Suppose  that  we  imagine  the  reversal  of  this  formula,  retain- 
ing in  our  language  coherence  of  feeling,  but  as  far  as  possible 
reducing  rational  coherence.  The  reduction  may  be  accomplished 
in  either  of  two  ways:  (1)  we  may  retain  the  syntactic  forms  and 
much  of  the  vocabulary  of  rational  coherence,  thus  aiming  to  ex- 
ploit the  feeling  of  rational  coherence  in  its  absence  or  at  least 
in  excess  of  its  presence;  or  (2)  we  may  abandon  all  pretence  of 
rational  coherence.  The  first  of  these  methods  I  have  called 
pseudo-reference  and  shall  treat  in  this  section.  The  second  I 
shall  reserve  for  the  next  section. 

Pseudo-reference  takes  a  good  many  forms.  I  shall  list  as  many 
forms  as  I  have  observed.  My  list  will  probably  not  be  complete, 
but  it  will  be  nearly  enough  complete  to  illustrate  the  principle 
and  to  provide  a  basis  of  further  observation. 

1.  Grammatical  coherence  in  excess  of,  or  in  the  absence  of, 
rational  coherence.  This  may  mean  no  more  than  a  slight  excess 

of  grammatical  machinery,  a  minor  redundancy.  Thus  Miss 
Moore,  in  Black  Earth: 

I  do  these 

things  which  I  do,  which  please 
no  one  lout  myself.1* 

The  words  which  I  have  set  in  Roman  are  redundant.  Again,  in 
Reinforcements™  Miss  Moore  writes: 

the  future  of  time  is  determined  by 
the  power  of  volition 

when  she  means: 

volition  determines  the  future. 

Miss  Moore  is  usually  ironic  when  writing  thus,  but  not  always; 
and  I  confess  that  it  appears  to  me  a  somewhat  facile  and  diffuse 
kind  of  irony,  for  the  instrument  of  irony  (the  poetry)  is  weak- 
ened in  the  interests  of  irony.  It  is  an  example  of  what  I  shall 
have  repeated  occasion  to  refer  to  as  the  fallacy  of  expressive,  or 
imitative,  form;  the  procedure  in  which  the  form  succumbs  to 
the  raw  material  of  the  poem.  It  is  as  if  Dryden  had  descended  to 
imitating  Shadwell's  style  in  his  efforts  to  turn  it  to  ridicule. 

Closely  related  to  this  procedure,  but  much  more  audacious,  is 
the  maintenance  of  grammatical  coherence  when  there  is  no  co- 
herence of  thought  or  very  little.  Hart  Crane,  for  example,  has 
placed  at  the  beginning  of  his  poem,  For  the  Marriage  of  Faustus 
and  Helen,19  the  following  quotation  from  Ben  Jonson's  play, 
The  Alchemist: 

And  so  we  may  arrive  by  Talmud  skill 
And  profane  Greek  to  raise  the  building  up 

18  Observations,  by  Marianne  Moore.  The  Dial  Press:  N.  Y.  1924. 
™  White  Buildings,  by  Hart  Crane.  Boni  and  Liveright:   1926. 


Of  Helens  house  against  the  Ismaelite, 
King  of  Thogarma,  and  his  habergeons 
Brimstony,  blue  and  fiery;  and  the  farce 
Of  King  Abaddon,  and  the  beast  of  Cittim; 
Which  Rabbi  David  Kimchi;  Onkelos, 
And  Aben  Ezra  do  interpret  Rome.20 

This  is  one  of  the  numerous  passages  in*  the  play,  in  which 
the  characters  speak  nonsense  purporting  to  contain  deep  alchem- 
ical secrets  or  to  express  a  feignedly  distraught  state  of  mind:  this 
particular  passage  serves  both  functions  at  once.  The  nonsense 
is  necessary  to  Jonson's  plot;  the  reader  recognizes  the  necessity 
and  can  make  no  objection,  so  that  he  is  forced  to  accept  with  un- 
alloyed pleasure  whatever  elusive  but  apparently  real  poetic  im- 
plications there  may  be  in  such  a  passage,  since  he  receives  these 
implications  absolutely  gratis.  The  technique  of  expressive  form, 
to  which  I  have  alluded,  is  here  forced  upon  Jonson  in  a  measure 
by  the  dramatic  medium,  for  the  characters  must  be  represented 
in  their  oWft  persons;  this  may  or  may  not  indicate  a  defect  in  the 
medium  itself,  as  compared  to  other  methods  of  satire,  but  at  any 
rate  there  is  no  misuse  of  the  medium.  Jonson  appears,  then,  to 
have  been  wholly  aware  of  this  procedure,  which  is  usually  re- 
garded as  a  Mallarmean  or  Rimbaldian  innovation,  and  Crane 
appears  to  have  found  at  least  one  of  his  chief  models  for  this 
kind  of  writing  in  Jonson.  Jonson  differs  from  Crane  in  that  he 
does  not  employ  the  method  when  writing  in  his  own  name,  but 
merely  employs  it  to  characterize  his  cozeners. 

The  two  sections  in  blank  verse  of  Faustus  and  Helen  resemble 
Jonson's  nonsense  very  closely.  For  example: 

The  mind  is  brushed  by  sparrow  wings; 
Numbers,  rebuffed  by  asphalt,  crowd 
The  margins  of  the  day,  accent  the  curbs, 
Conveying  divers  dawns  on  every  corner 
To  druggist,  barber,  and  tobacconist, 
Until  the  graduate  opacities  of  evening 
90  Act  IV:  3.  Regarding  this  discussion,  see  Foreword  on  p.  153. 

Take  them  away  as  suddenly  to  somewhere 
Virginal,  perhaps,  less  fragmentary,  cool. 

This  is  perfectly  grammatical,  and  if  not  examined  too  carefully 
may  appear  more  or  less  comprehensible.  But  the  activities  of 
the  numbers,  if  the  entire  sentence  is  surveyed,  appear  wholly 
obscure.  If  one  suppose  numbers  to  be  a  synonym  for  numbers  of 
persons,  for  crowds,  one  or  two  points  are  cleared  up,  but  no 
more.  If  one  suppose  the  numbers  to  be  the  mathematical  abstrac- 
tions of  modern  life,  structural,  temporal,  financial,  and  others 
similar,  there  is  greater  clarity;  but  the  first  five  lines  are  so  pre- 
cious and  indirect  as  to  be  somewhat  obscure,  and  the  last  three 
lines  are  perfectly  obscure. 

There  is  a  pleasanter  example  of  the  same  kind  of  writing  in 
a  shorter  poem  by  Crane,  and  from  the  same  volume,  the  poem 
called  Sunday  Morning  Apples: 

A  boy  runs  with  a  dog  before  the  sun,  straddling 
Spontaneities  that  form  their  independent  orbits, 
Their  own  perennials  of  light 
In  the  valley  where  you  live 

(called  Brandy wine. ) 

The  second  line,  taken  in  conjunction  with  the  first,  conveys  the 
action  of  the  boy,  but  it  does  so  indirectly  and  by  suggestion. 
What  it  says,  if  we  consider  rational  content  alone,  is  really  inde- 
cipherable. One  can,  of  course,  make  a  rational  paraphrase,  but 
one  can  do  it,  not  by  seeking  the  rational  content  of  the  lines, 
but  by  seeking  suggestions  as  to  the  boy's  behavior,  and  by  then 
making  a  rational  statement  regarding  it.  The  line  has  a  certain 
loveliness  and  conveys  what  it  sets  out  to  convey:  the  objection 
which  I  should  make  to  it  is  that  it  goes  through  certain  motions 
that  are  only  half  effective.  A  greater  poet  would  have  made  the 
rational  formula  count  rationally,  at  the  same  time  that  he  was 
utilizing  suggestion;  he  would  thus  have  achieved  a  more  con- 
centrated poetry. 

2.  Transference  of  Values  /row  one  field  of  experience  to  an- 


other  and  unrelated  field.  I  shall  illustrate  this  procedure  with 
passages  from  Crane's  poem,  The  Dance.21  The  poem  opens  with 
the  description  of  a  journey  first  by  canoe  down  the  Hudson,  then 
on  foot  into  the  mountains.  As  the  protagonist,  or  narrator,  pro- 
ceeds on  his  way,  he  appears  to  proceed  likewise  into  the  past, 
until  he  arrives  at  the  scene  of  an  Indian  dance,  at  which  a  chief- 
tain, Maquokeeta,  is  being  burned  at  the  stake.  The  poem  from 
this  point  on  deals  with  the  death  and  apotheosis  of  Maquokeeta, 
the  apotheosis  taking  the  form  of  a  union  with  Pocahontas,  who 
has  been  introduced  in  this  poem  and  in  the  poem  preceding, 
The  River,  as  a  kind  of  mythic  deity  representing  the  American 
soil.  The  following  passage  is  the  climax  and  the  most  striking 
moment  in  the  poem: 

O,  like  the  lizard  in  the  furious  noon, 

That  drops  his  legs  and  colors  in  the  sun, 

—And  laughs,  pure  serpent,  Time  itself,  and  moon 

Of  his  own  fate,  I  saw  thy  change  loegunl 

And  saw  thee  dive  to  kiss  that  destiny 
Like  one  white  meteor,  sacrosanct  and  blent 
At  last  with  all  that's  consummate  and  free 
There  where  the  first  and  last  gods  keep  thy  tent. 

The  remainder  of  the  poem  develops  the  same  theme  and  the 
same  mood.  The  following  phrases  are  typical : 

Thy  freedom  is  her  largesse,  Prince  .  .  . 
And  are  her  perfect  brows  to  thine?  .  .  . 

The  difficulty  resides  in  the  meaning  of  the  union.  It  may  be 
regarded  in  either  of  two  ways:  as  the  simple  annihilation  and 
dissolution  in  the  soil  of  Maquokeeta,  or  as  the  entrance  into 
another  and  superior  mode  of  life.  There  is  no  possible  com- 

If  we  select  the  former  alternative,  the  language  of  mystical 
"From  The  Bridge,  by  Hart  Crane.  Horace  Liveright,  N.  Y.:  1930. 

and  physical  union  has  no  relationship  to  the  event:  it  is  lan- 
guage carried  over,  with  all  or  a  good  deal  of  its  connotation,  from 
two  entirely  different  realms  of  experience.  The  passage  is  thus 
parasitic  for  its  effect  upon  feelings  unrelated  to  its  theme.  The 
words  consummate  and  free,  for  example,  carry  the  connotations 
common  to  them,  but  their  rational  meaning  in  this  context  is 
terminated  and  dissipated.  Sacrosanct,  similarly,  while  carrying 
certain  feelings  from  its  religious  past,  would  mean  devoid  of  hu- 
man meaning,  or,  more  concisely,  devoid  of  meaning.  Similarly, 
perfect,  in  the  last  line  quoted,  carries  feelings  from  love  poetry, 
but  it  would  actually  signify  meaningless.  In  other  words,  extinc- 
tion is  beatitude.  But  this  is  nonsense:  extinction  is  extinction.  If 
there  is  a  state  of  beatitude,  it  is  a  state;  that  is,  it  is  not  extinction. 

If  we  accept  the  second  alternative  and  assume  that  some  really 
mystical  experience  is  implied,  there  is  nothing  in  the  poem  or 
elsewhere  in  Crane's  work  to  give  us  a  clue  to  the  nature  of  the 
experience.  The  only  possible  conclusion  is  that  he  was  confused 
as  to  his  own  feelings  and  did  not  bother  to  find  out  what  he  was 
really  talking  about.  That  odd  bits  of  this  obscurity  can  be  glossed 
I  am  fully  aware;  but  it  cannot  be  cleaned  up  to  an  extent  even 
moderately  satisfactory.  There  is  a  wide  margin  of  obscurity  and 
of  meaningless  excitement,  despite  a  certain  splendor  of  language 
which  may  at  times  move  one  to  forget,  or  to  try  to  forget,  what 
the  poem  lacks. 

Further,  there  seems  actually  little  doubt  that  Crane  did  con- 
fuse in  some  way  the  ideas  of  extinction  and  of  beatitude,  and 
that  he  was  an  enthusiastic  pantheistical  mystic.  The  mere  fact 
that  beatitude  is  represented  in  this  poem  by  the  union  with 
Pocahontas,  who  stands  for  the  soil  of  America,  is  evidence  in 
itself;  and  further  evidence  may  be  found  in  The  River  and  in 
some  of  the  shorter  poems.  But  one  does  not  create  a  religion  and 
a  conception  of  immortality  simply  by  naming  the  soil  Pocahontas 
and  by  then  writing  love  poetry  to  the  Indian  girl  who  bore  that 
name.  Crane  repeatedly  refers  to  an  idea  which  he  cannot  define 
and  which  probably  never  had  even  potential  existence. 

A  similar  difficulty  occurs  in  Atlantis,  the  final  section  of  The 
Bridge,  the  sequence  of  which  The  Dance  and  The  River  are 


central  parts.  The  Brooklyn  Bridge  is  seen  in  a  kind  of  vision  or 
hallucination  as  the  new  Atlantis,  the  future  America.  The  lan- 
guage is  ecstatic;  at  certain  moments  and  in  certain  ways  it  comes 
near  to  being  the  most  brilliant  language  in  Craned  work: 

Like  hails,  farewells— up  planet-sequined  heights 
Some  trillion  whispering  hammers  glimmer  Tyre: 
Serenely,  sharply  up  the  long  anvil  cry 
Of  inchling  &ons  silence  rivets  Troy  .  .  . 

But  the  only  poetic  embodiment  of  the  future,  the  only  source  of 
the  ecstacy,  is  a  quantitative  vision  of  bigger  cities  with  higher 
buildings.  One  can  read  a  certain  amount  of  allegory  into  this, 
but  in  so  far  as  one  makes  the  allegory  definite  or  comprehensible, 
one  will  depart  from  the  text;  the  enthusiasm  again  is  obscure. 

3.  Reference  to  a  non-existent  plot.  This  is  most  easily  illus- 
trated by  selections  from  T.  S.  Eliot.  I  quote  from  Gerontion:2~ 

To  he  eaten,  to  be  divided,  to  he  drunk 
Among  -whispers;  by  Mr.  Silvero 
With  caressing  hands,  at  Limoges 
Who  walked  all  night  in  the  next  room; 
By  Hakagawa,  bowing  among  the  Titians; 
By  Madame  de  Tornquist,  in  the  dark  room 
Shifting  the  candles;  Fraulein  von  Kulp 
Who  turned  in  the  hall,  one  hand  on  the  door. 

Each  one  of  these  persons  is  denoted  in  the  performance  of  an 
act,  and  each  act,  save  possibly  that  of  Hakagawa,  implies  an 
anterior  situation,  is  a  link  in  a  chain  of  action;  even  that  of 
Hakagawa  implies  an  anterior  and  unexplained  personality.  Yet 
we  have  no  hint  of  the  nature  of  the  history  implied.  A  feeling  is 
claimed  by  the  poet,  the  motivation,  or  meaning,  of  which  is 
with-held,  and  of  which  in  all  likelihood  he  has  no  clearer  notion 

*  Poems  1 909- 1925,  by  T.  S.  Eliot. 

than  his  readers  can  have.  I  do  not  wish  to  seem  to  insist  that  Mr. 
Eliot  should  have  recounted  the  past  histories  in  order  to  perfect 
this  particular  poem.  Given  the  convention,  the  modus  operandi, 
the  obscurity  is  inevitable,  and  compared  to  the  obscurity  which 
we  have  just  seen  in  Crane,  it  is  relatively  innocent.  But  obscur- 
ity it  is:  discreetly  modulated  diffuseness.  A  more  direct  and 
economical  convention  seems  to  me  preferable. 

Mr.  Eliot  does  much  the  same  thing,  but  less  skillfully,  else- 
where. The  following  passage  is  from  Burhank  with  a  Baedecker; 
Bleistein  with  a  Cigar:23 

Eurbank  crossed,  a  little  bridge, 

Descending  at  a  small  hotel; 
Princess  Volupine  arrived, 

They  were  together,  and  he  fell. 

What  is  the  significance  of  the  facts  in  the  first  two  lines?  They 
have  no  real  value  as  perception:  the  notation  is  too  perfunctory. 
They  must  have  some  value  as  information,  as  such  details  might 
have  value,  for  example,  in  a  detective  story,  if  they  are  to  have 
any  value  at  all.  Yet  they  have  no  bearing  on  what  follows;  in 
fact,  most  of  what  follows  is  obscure  in  exactly  the  same  way. 
They  are  not  even  necessary  to  what  occurs  in  the  next  two  lines, 
for  Princess  Volupine  might  just  as  well  have  encountered  him 
anywhere  else  and  after  any  other  transit. 

4.  Explicit  Reference  to  a  non-existent  symbolic  value.  The 
following  lines  are  taken  from  a  poem  entitled  Museum,24  by 
Mr.  Alan  Porter: 

The  day  was  empty.  Very  pale  with  dust, 
A  chalk  road  set  its  finger  at  the  moors. 
The  drab,  damp  air  so  blanketed  the  town 
Never  an  oak  swung  leather  leaf.  The  chimneys 

38  Poems  1 909- J  925,  by  T.  S.  Eliot. 

**  Signature  of  Pain,  by  Alan  Porter.  The  John  Day  Company:  New  York: 


Pushed  up  their  pillars  at  the  loose-hung  sky; 
And  through  the  haze,  along  the  ragstone  houses, 
Red  lichens  dulled  to  a  rotten-apple  brown. 

Suddenly  turning  a  byeway  corner,  a  cripple, 
Bloodless  with  age,  lumbered  along  the  road. 
The  motes  of  dust  whirled  at  his  iron-shod  crutches 
And  quickly  settled.  A  dog  whined.  The  old 
Cripple  looked  round,  and,  seeing  no  man,  gave 
A  quick,  small  piping  chuclde,  swung  a  pace, 
And  stopped  to  look  about  and  laugh  again. 
"That,"  said  a  girl  in  a  flat  voice,  "is  God." 
Her  mother  made  no  answer;  she  remembered, 
"I  knew  an  old  lame  beggar  who  went  mad." 
He  lumbered  along  the  road  and  turned  a  corner. 
His  tapping  faded  and  the  day  was  death. 

This  poem  is  ably  written  and  has  an  unusually  fine  texture;  in 
fact,  it  is  the  texture  of  the  entire  work  which  provides  the  effec- 
tive setting  for  the  factitious  comment  on  the  beggar,  and  the 
comment  is  introduced  with  great  skill.  The  landscape  is  intense 
and  mysterious,  as  if  with  meaning  withheld.  In  such  a  setting, 
the  likening  of  the  beggar  to  God  appears,  for  an  instant,  por- 
tentous, but  only  for  an  instant,  for  there  is  no  discernible  basis 
for  the  likening.  The  beggar  is  treated  as  if  he  were  symbolic  of 
something,  whereas  he  is  really  symbolic  of  nothing  that  one  can 
discover.  The  introduction  of  the  beggar  appears  to  be  a  very 
skillful  piece  of  sleight-of-hand;  yet  it  is  not  an  incidental  detail 
of  the  description,  but  is  rather  the  climax  of  the  description,  the 
theme  of  the  poem.  We  have,  in  other  words,  a  rather  fine  poem 
about  nothing. 

5.  Implicit  Reference  to  a  non-existent  symbolic  value.  It  may 
be  difficult  at  times  to  distinguish  this  type  of  pseudo-reference 
from  the  last  or  from  the  type  which  I  have  designated  under  the 

heading  of  transferred  value.  I  shall  merely  endeavor  to  select 
examples  as  obvious  as  possible. 

There  is,  in  the  first  place,  such  a  thing  as  implicit  reference  to 
a  genuine  symbolic  value.  The  second  sonnet  in  Heredia's  Tro- 
phdes,  the  sonnet  entitled  Nemee,  describes  the  slaying  of  the 
Nemean  lion  by  Hercules.  Hercules  is  the  typical  hero;  the  slay- 
ing of  the  lion  is  the  heroic  task;  the  fleeing  peasant  is  the  com- 
mon mortal  for  whom  the  task  is  performed.  It  is  nakedly  and 
obviously  allegorical,  yet  there  is  no  statement  within  the  poem 
of  the  allegorical  intention:  it  is  our  familiarity  with  the  myth 
and  with  other  similar  myths  which  makes  us  recognize  the  poem 
as  allegory.  Similarly,  there  is  no  statement  of  allegorical  inten- 
tion within  Blake's  poem,  The  Tiger:  the  recognition  of  the  in- 
tention is  due  to  Blake's  having  been  fairly  explicit  in  other 

Further,  it  is  possible  to  describe  an  item  with  no  past  history 
in  such  a  way  that  it  will  have  a  significance  fairly  general.  This 
is  the  procedure  of  a  handful  of  the  best  poems  of  the  Imagist 
movement;  for  example,  of  Dr.  Williams'  poem,  On  the  road  to 
the  contagious  hospital.  Thus  Miss  Moore  describes  a  parakeet,  in 
the  poem  entitled  My  Apish  Cousins: 

the  parakeet, 
trivial  and  humdrum  on  examination, 

hark  and  portions  of  the  food  it  could  not  eat. 

There  is  also  the  legitimate  field  of  purely  descriptive  poetry, 
with  no  general  significance  and  no  claim  to  any.  For  examples, 
one  could  cite  many  passages  from  The  Seasons,  or  from  Crabbe. 
There  is  no  attempt  in  such  poetry  to  communicate  any  feeling 
save  the  author's  interest  in  visible  beauties.  Such  poetry  can 
scarcely  rise  to  the  greatest  heights,  but  within  its  field  it  is  sound, 
and  it  can,  as  in  some  of  Crabbe's  descriptions,  especially  of  the 
sea,  achieve  surprising  power.  There  is  a  good  deal  of  this  sort  of 
thing  scattered  through  English  literature. 


Growing  out  of  these  two  types  of  poetry  (that  which  refers  to 
a  genuine  symbolic  value,  but  implicitly,  and  the  purely  descrip- 
tive), there  is  a  sentimental  and  more  or  less  spurious  variety,  a 
good  deal  of  which  was  recently  fostered  by  the  Imagist  move- 
ment, but  which  actually  antedates  the  Imagist  movement  by 
more  than  a  century. 

This  poetry  describes  landscape  or  other  material,  sometimes 
very  ably,  but  assumes  a  quality  or  intensity  of  feeling  of  which 
the  source  is  largely  obscure.  Thus  in  Collins'  Ode  to  Evening  we 
find  a  melancholy  which  at  moments,  as  in  the  description  of  the 
bat,  verges  on  disorder,  and  which  at  all  times  is  far  too  profound 
to  arise  from  an  evening  landscape  alone.  Collins'  bat  differs 
from  Miss  Moore's  parakeet  in  this:  that  the  parakeet  is  a  gen- 
uine example  of  the  way  in  which  the  exotic  may  become  hum- 
drum with  familiarity— there  is,  in  other  words,  a  real  perception 
of  the  bird  involved,  which  does  not  exceed  the  order  of  experi- 
ence which  the  bird  may  reasonably  represent;  whereas  Collins' 
bat  is  not  mad  nor  a  sufficient  motive  for  madness,  but  is  used  to 
express  a  state  of  mind  irrelevant  to  him.  It  is  as  if  a  man  should 
murder  his  mother,  and  then,  to  express  his  feelings,  write  an 
Ode  to  Thunder.  Or  rather,  it  is  as  if  a  man  should  murder  his 
mother  with  no  consciousness  of  the  act,  but  with  all  of  the  con- 
sequent suffering,  and  should  then  so  express  himself.  A  symbol 
is  used  to  embody  a  feeling  neither  relevant  to  the  symbol  nor 
relevant  to  anything  else  of  which  the  poet  is  conscious :  the  poet 
expresses  his  feeling  as  best  he  is  able  without  understanding  it. 
Collins  in  this  poem,  and  in  his  odes  to  the  disembodied  passions, 
is  perhaps  the  first  purely  romantic  poet  and  one  of  the  best.  He 
does  not,  like  Gray,  retain  amid  his  melancholy  any  of  the  classi- 
cal gift  for  generalization,  and  he  has  provided  the  language  with 
no  familiar  quotations.  Shelley's  Ode  to  the  West  Wind,  and  in 
a  measure  Keats'  Ode  to  the  Nightingale,  are  examples  of  the 
same  procedure;  namely,  of  expressing  a  feeling,  not  as  among 
the  traditional  poets  in  terms  of  its  motive,  but  in  terms  of  some- 
thing irrelevant  or  largely  so,  commonly  landscape.  No  landscape, 
in  itself,  is  an  adequate  motive  for  the  feelings  expressed  in  such 
poems  as  these;  an  appropriate  landscape  merely  brings  to  mind 


certain  feelings  and  is  used  as  a  symbol  for  their  communication. 
The  procedure  can  be  defended  on  the  grounds  that  the  feeling 
may  be  universal  and  that  the  individual  reader  is  at  liberty  to 
supply  his  own  motive;  but  the  procedure  nevertheless  does  not 
make  for  so  concentrated  a  poetry  as  the  earlier  method,  and  as 
an  act  of  moral  contemplation  the  poem  is  incomplete  and  may 
even  be  misleading  and  dangerous. 

H.  D.  employs  a  formula  nearly  identical  with  that  of  Collins 
in  most  of  her  poems.  In  describing  a  Greek  landscape,  she  fre- 
quently writes  as  if  it  had  some  intrinsic  virtue  automatically 
evoked  by  a  perception  of  its  qualities  as  landscape  but  more  im- 
portant than  these  qualities  in  themselves.  It  is  not  Greek  history 
or  civilization  with  which  she  is  concerned,  or  most  often  it  is 
not:  the  material  is  simple  and  more  or  less  ideally  bucolic.  Fre- 
quently the  ecstasy  (the  quality  of  feeling  assumed  is  nearly 
identical  in  most  of  her  poems)  is  evoked  merely  by  rocks,  sea, 
and  islands.  But  it  would  not  be  evoked  by  any  rock,  sea,  or 
islands:  they  must  be  Greek.  But  why  must  they  be  Greek?  Be- 
cause of  Athenian  civilization?  If  so,  why  the  to-do  about  material 
irrelevant  to  Athenian  civilization?  There  is  some  wholly  obscure 
attachment  on  the  poet's  part  to  anything  Greek,  regardless  of  its 
value:  the  mention  of  anything  Greek  is  sufficient  to  release  her 
very  intense  feeling.  But  since  the  relationship  between  the  feel- 
ing and  the  Greek  landscape  has  no  comprehensible  source  and  is 
very  strong,  one  must  call  it  sentimental. 

This  is  not  to  say  that  all  her  poetry  is  spoiled  by  it:  much  of 
it  is  spoiled  and  nearly  all  is  tainted,  but  the  taint  is  sometimes 
very  slight;  and  the  description,  in  addition,  is  sometimes  very 
fine.  Exotic  landscapes  of  one  kind  or  another  have  been  em- 
ployed in  exactly  this  fashion  for  about  a  century,  and,  in  Amer- 
ica, the  American  landscape  has  been  so  employed  by  such 
writers  as  Whitman,  Sandburg,  Crane,  and  Williams. 

6.  Explicit  Reference  to  a  non-existent  or  obscure  principle  of 
motivation.  This  may  at  times  be  hard  to  distinguish  from  almost 
any  of  the  types  of  obscurity  which  I  have  described,  but  there 
are  to  be  found  occasionally  passages  of  pseudo-reference  which 
will  fit  into  scarcely  any  other  category.  Bearing  in  mind  the 

fundamental  obscurity  of  The  Dance,  by  Hart  Crane,  an  obscu- 
rity which  I  have  already  discussed  at  some  length,  let  us  consider 
these  two  lines  from  it: 

Mythical  brows  we  saw  retiring— loth, 
Disturbed,  and  destined,  into  denser  green. 

This  passage  depends  for  its  effect  wholly  upon  the  feeling  of 

The  mythical  has  rational  content  for  the  believer  in  myths  or 
for  him  who  can  find  an  idea  embodied  in  the  myth.  The  major 
Greek  divinities  exist  for  us  chiefly  as  allegorical  embodiments  of 
more  or  less  Platonic  ideas.  What  myths  have  we  in  mind  here? 
None.  Or  none  unless  it  be  the  myth  of  Pocahontas,  which,  as 
we  have  seen,  is  irreducible  to  any  idea.  There  is  merely  a  feeling 
of  mythicalness. 

Loth,  disturbed,  destined  are  words  of  motivation;  that  is,  each 
one  implies  a  motive.  But  the  nature  of  the  motive  is  not  given 
in  the  poem,  nor  is  it  deducible  from  the  poem  nor  from  the 
body  of  Crane's  work.  In  fact,  it  is  much  easier  to  read  some  sort 
of  general  meaning  into  these  lines  in  isolation  than  in  their 
context,  which  has  already  been  discussed. 

Such  terms  give,  then,  a  feeling  of  reasonable  motivation  un- 
reasonably obscured.  The  poet  speaks  as  if  he  had  knowledge 
incommunicable  to  us,  but  of  which  he  is  able  to  communicate 
the  resultant  feelings.  There  is  a  feeling  of  mystery  back  of  an 
emotion  which  the  poet  endeavors  to  render  with  precision.  It  is 
a  skillful  indulgence  in  irresponsibility.  The  skill  is  admirable, 
but  not  the  irresponsibility.  The  poetry  has  a  ghostly  quality,  as 
if  it  were  only  half  there. 

7.  Reference  to  a  purely  private  symbolic  value.  A  poet,  some- 
times because  of  the  limitations  of  his  education,  and  sometimes 
for  other  reasons,  may  center  his  feelings  in  symbols  shared  with 
no  one,  or  perhaps  only  with  a  small  group.  The  private  symbol 
may  or  may  not  refer  to  a  clear  concept  or  understanding.  If  it 
does  so  refer  and  the  poetry  is  otherwise  good,  readers  are  likely 
eventually  to  familiarize  themselves  with  the  symbols;  in  fact 

brilliant  writing  alone  will  suffice  to  this  end,  as  witness  the 
efforts  that  have  been  made  to  clarify  the  essentially  obscure 
concepts  of  Blake  and  of  Yeats.  A  certain  amount  of  this  kind  of 
thing,  in  fact,  is  probably  inevitable  in  any  poet,  and  sometimes, 
as  in  the  references  to  private  experience  in  the  sonnets  of  Shake- 
speare, the  obscurity,  as  a  result  of  the  accidents  of  history,  can 
never  be  penetrated. 

I  have  illustrated  one  extreme  type  of  pseudo-reference  with  a 
passage  from  Ben  Jonson;  I  might  have  utilized  also  the  "mad 
songs"  of  the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries,  such  as  were 
written  by  Shakespeare,  Fletcher,  and  Herrick.  Samuel  Johnson 
wrote  thus  in  his  Life  of  Dryden:  "Dryden  delighted  to  tread 
upon  the  brink  of  meaning,  where  light  and  darkness  mingle. 
.  .  .  This  inclination  sometimes  produced  nonsense,  which  he 
knew;  and  sometimes  it  issued  in  absurdity,  of  which  perhaps  he 
was  not  conscious."  The  method  appears,  then,  to  have  been  for  a 
long  time  one  of  the  recognized  potentialities  of  poetic  writing, 
but  to  have  been  more  or  less  checked  by  the  widespread  com- 
mand of  rational  subject  matter. 

It  should  naturally  have  been  released,  as  it  appears  to  have 
been,  by  a  period  of  amateur  mysticism,  of  inspiration  for  its 
own  sake,  by  a  tendency  such  as  that  which  we  have  for  some 
years  past  observed,  to  an  increasingly  great  preoccupation  with 
the  fringe  of  consciousness,  to  an  increasing  emphasis  on  the 
concept  of  continuous  experience,  a  tendency  to  identify,  under 
the  influence,  perhaps,  of  scientific  or  of  romantic  monism,  sub- 
conscious stimuli  and  reactions  with  occult  inspiration,  to  con- 
fuse the  divine  and  the  visceral,  and  to  employ  in  writing  from 
such  attitudes  as  this  confusion  might  provide,  a  language  previ- 
ously reserved  to  the  religious  mystics.  Such  a  change  would 
involve  along  its  way  such  indefinable  philosophies  as  Bergson- 
ism25  and  Transcendentalism,26  such  half-metaphorical  sciences 

*  Le  Bergsonisme,  by  Julien  Benda.  Mercure  de  France:  1926.  Also  Flux 
and,  Blur  in  Contemporary  Art,  by  John  Crowe  Ransom  in  the  Sewanee 
Review,  July,  1929. 

"H.  B.  Parkes  on  Emerson,  in  the  Hound  and  Horn,  Summer,  1932;  in- 
cluded in  The  Pragmatic  Test,  by  H.  B.  Parkes,  The  Colt  Press,  San  Francisco, 

as  psychoanalysis,  and  especially  the  popular  myths  and  supersti- 
tions which  they  and  the  more  reputable  sciences  have  engen- 
dered. In  such  an  intellectual  milieu,  semi-automatic  writing  he- 
gins  to  appear  a  legitimate  and  even  a  superior  method. 

Emerson,  in  Merlin,  for  example,  gives  this  account  of  the 
bard's  activity: 

He  shall  not  his  brain  encumber 

With  the  coil  of  rhythm  and  number; 

But,  leaving  rule  and  pale  forethought, 

He  shall  aye  climb 

For  his  rhyme. 

"Pass  in,  pass  in,"  the  angels  say, 

"In  to  the  upper  doors, 

Nor  count  compartments  of  the  floors, 

But  mount  to  paradise 

By  the  stairway  of  surprise." 

Just  how  much  Emerson  meant  by  this  passage  it  would  be  hard 
to  say;  it  is  always  hard  to  say  just  how  much  Emerson  meant, 
and  perhaps  would  have  been  hardest  for  Emerson.  Mr.  Tate 
reduces  Emerson's  Transcendentalism27  to  this  formula:  ".  .  . 
In  Emerson,  man  is  greater  than  any  idea,  and  being  the  Over- 
Soul  is  potentially  perfect;  there  is  no  struggle  because— I  state 
the  Emersonian  doctrine,  which  is  very  slippery,  in  its  extreme 
terms— because  there  is  no  possibility  of  error.  There  is  no  drama 
in  human  character,  because  there  is  no  tragic  fault/' 

To  continue  with  extreme  terms— which  will  give  us,  if  not 
what  Emerson  desired,  the  results  which  his  doctrine  and  others 
similar  have  encouraged— we  arrive  at  these  conclusions:  If  there 
is  no  possibility  of  error,  the  revision  of  judgment  is  meaning- 
less; immediate  inspiration  is  correct;  but  immediate  inspiration 
amounts  to  the  same  thing  as  unrevised  reactions  to  stimuli;  un- 
revised  reactions  are  mechanical;  man  in  a  state  of  perfection  is 

27  New  England  Culture  and  Emily  Dickinson,  by  Allen  Tate :  The  Sym- 
posium, April,  1932.  Reprinted  in  a  somewhat  revised  form  in  Reactionary  Es- 
says on  Poetry  and  Ideas,  by  Allen  Tate,  Scribners,  1936. 


an  automaton;  an  automatic  man  is  insane.  Hence,  Emerson's 
perfect  man  is  a  madman. 

The  important  thing  about  all  this  is  not  Emerson's  originality, 
but  his  complete  lack  of  any:  exactly  the  same  conclusions  are 
deducible  from  the  Essay  on  Man,  and  the  convictions  which 
lead  to  them  one  meets  everywhere  in  the  eighteenth,  nine- 
teenth, and  twentieth  centuries. 

Dr.  W.  C.  Williams,  for  example,  who,  like  Emerson,  does  not 
practice  unreservedly  what  he  preaches,  but  who  more  perhaps 
than  any  writer  living  encourages  in  his  juniors  a  profound  con- 
viction of  their  natural  Tightness,  a  sentimental  debauchery  of 
self-indulgence,  is  able  to  write  as  follows:  "It  is  the  same  thing 
you'll  see  in  a  brigand,  a  criminal  of  the  grade  of  Gerald  Chap- 
man, some  of  the  major  industrial  leaders,  old-fashioned  kings, 
the  Norsemen,  drunkards  and  the  best  poets.  .  .  .  Poetry  is  im- 
posed on  an  age  by  men  intent  on  something  else,  whose  primary 
cleanliness  of  mind  makes  them  automatically  first-rate."  28 

A  few  months  later  Dr.  Williams  writes  of  and  to  his  young 
admirers  somewhat  querulously:29  'Instead  of  that— Lord  how 
serious  it  sounds— let's  play  tiddly-winks  with  the  syllables.  .  .  . 
Experiment  we  must  have,  but  it  seems  to  me  that  a  number  of 
the  younger  writers  has  iorgotten  that  writing  doesn't  mean  just 
inventing  new  ways  to  say  'So's  your  Old  Man/  I  swear  I  myself 
can't  make  out  for  the  life  of  me  what  many  of  them  are  talking 
about,  and  I  have  a  will  to  understand  them  that  they  will  not 
find  in  many  another."  He  demands  substance,  not  realizing  that 
his  own  teachings  have  done  their  very  respectable  bit  toward 
cutting  the  young  men  off  from  any. 

The  Emersonian  and  allied  doctrines  differ  in  their  moral  im- 
plications very  little  from  any  form  of  Quietism  or  even  from  the 
more  respectable  and  Catholic  forms  of  mysticism.  If  we  add  to 
the  doctrine  the  belief  in  pantheism— that  is,  the  belief  that  the 
Over-Soul  is  the  Universe,  that  body  and  soul  are  one— we  have 

*  Blues  (published  by  C.  H.  Ford,  at  Columbus,  Miss.)  for  May,  1929. 

29  Blues  for  Autumn  of  1930.  The  reference  to  the  game  of  tiddly-winks  will 
be  clear  only  to  those  persons  familiar  with  the  imitators  of  Mr.  James  Joyce's 
fourth  prose  work,  exclusive  of  Exiles,  entitled  Finnegans  Wake. 


the  basis  for  the  more  or  less  Freudian  mysticism  of  the  surreal- 
ists and  such  of  their  disciples  as  Eugene  Jolas;  we  have  also— 
probably— a  rough  notion  of  Hart  Crane's  mysticism.  There  is 
the  danger  for  the  Quietist  that  the  promptings  of  the  Devil  or 
of  the  viscera  may  be  mistaken  for  the  promptings  of  God.  The 
pantheistic  mystic  identifies  God,  Devil,  and  viscera  as  a  point 
of  doctrine:  he  is  more  interested  in  the  promptings  of  the  "sub- 
conscious" mind  than  of  the  conscious,  in  the  half-grasped  inten- 
tion, in  the  fleeting  relationship,  than  in  that  which  is  wholly 
understood.  He  is  interested  in  getting  just  as  far  off  in  the  direc- 
tion of  the  uncontrolled,  the  meaningless,  as  he  can  possibly  get 
and  still  have  the  pleasure  of  talking  about  it.  He  is  frequently 
more  interested  in  the  psychology  of  sleeping  than  in  the  psy- 
chology of  waking;30  he  would  if  he  could  devote  himself  to 
exploring  that  realm  of  experience  which  he  shares  with  sea- 
anemones,  cabbages,  and  onions,  in  preference  to  exploring  the 
realm  of  experience  shared  specifically  with  men. 

So  far  as  my  own  perceptions  are  able  to  guide  me,  it  appears 
that  the  writers  employing  such  methods  are  writing  a  little  too 
much  as  Jonson's  alchemists  spoke,  with  a  philosophical  back- 
ground insusceptible  of  definition,  despite  their  apparently  care- 
ful references  to  it,  but  as  their  own  dupes,  not  to  dupe  others. 
They  have  revised  Baudelaire's  dictum  that  the  poet  should  be 
the  hypnotist  and  somnambulist  combined;  he  should  now  be  the 
cozener  and  the  cozened.  Crane,  despite  his  genius,  and  the  same 
is  true  of  Mr.  James  Joyce,  appears  to  answer  Ben  Jonson's 
scoundrels  across  the  centuries,  and  in  their  own  language,  but 
like  a  somnambulist  under  their  control. 

This  kind  of  writing  is  not  a  "new  kind  of  poetry,"  as  it  has 
been  called  perennially  since  Verlaine  discovered  it  in  Rimbaud. 
It  is  the  old  kind  of  poetry  with  half  the  meaning  removed.  Its 
strangeness  comes  from  its  thinness.  Indubitable  genius  has  been 
expended  upon  poetry  of  this  type,  and  much  of  the  poetry  so 
written  will  more  than  likely  have  a  long  life,  and  quite  justly, 
but  the  nature  of  the  poetry  should  be  recognized:  it  can  do  us 

90  Cf.  Mr.  James  Joyce's  Finnegans  Wake,  and  the  voluminous  works  by 
Mr.  Joyce's  apologists  and  imitators. 


no  good  to  be  the  dupes  of  men  who  do  not  understand  them- 


THE  TERM  qualitative  progression  I  am  borrowing  from  Mr. 
Kenneth  Burked  volume  of  criticism,  Counter  statement,  to  which 
I  have  already  had  several  occasions  to  refer.  This  method  arises 
from  the  same  attitudes  as  the  last,  and  it  resembles  the  last  ex- 
cept that  it  makes  no  attempt  whatever  at  a  rational  progression. 
Mr.  Pound's  Cantos31  are  the  perfect  example  of  the  form;  they 
make  no  unfulfilled  claims  to  matter  not  in  the  poetry,  or  at  any 
rate  relatively  few  and  slight  claims.  Mr.  Pound  proceeds  from 
image  to  image  wholly  through  the  coherence  of  feeling:  his  sole 
principle  of  unity  is  mood,  carefully  established  and  varied.  That 
is,  each  statement  he  makes  is  reasonable  in  itself,  but  the  pro- 
gression from  statement  to  statement  is  not  reasonable:  it  is  the 
progression  either  of  random  conversation  or  of  revery.  This  kind 
of  progression  might  be  based  upon  an  implicit  rationality;  in 
such  a  case  the  rationality  of  the  progression  becomes  clearly 
evident  before  the  poem  has  gone  very  far  and  is  never  there- 
after lost  sight  of;  in  a  poem  of  any  length  such  implicit  rational- 
ity would  have  to  be  supported  by  explicit  exposition.  But  in  Mr. 
Pound's  poem  I  can  find  few  implicit  themes  of  any  great  clarity, 
and  fewer  still  that  are  explicit.82 

81 A  Draft  of  XXX  Cantos,  by  Ezra  Pound.  Hours  Press:  15  rue  Guen^gaud: 
Paris:  1930. 

83  Mr.  Pound,  writing  in  The  New  English  Weekly,  Vol.  Ill,  No.  4,  of  re- 
marks similar  to  the  above  which  I  published  in  The  Hound  and  Horn  for  the 
Spring  of  1933,  states:  "I  am  convinced  that  one  should  not  as  a  general  rule 
reply  to  critics  or  defend  works  in  process  of  being  written.  On  the  other  hand, 
if  one  prints  fragments  of  a  work  one  perhaps  owes  the  benevolent  reader 
enough  explanation  to  prevent  his  wasting  time  in  unnecessary  misunder- 

"The  nadir  of  solemn  and  elaborate  imbecility  is  reached  by  Mr.  Winters  in 
an  American  publication  where  he  deplores  my  'abandonment  of  logic  in  the 
Cantos,'  presumably  because  he  has  never  read  my  prose  criticism  and  has  never 
heard  of  the  ideographic  method,  and  thinks  logic  is  limited  to  a  few  'forms  of 
logic'  which  better  minds  were  already  finding  inadequate  to  the  mental  needs 
of  the  Xlllth  century." 

As  to  the  particular  defects  of  scholarship  which  Mr.  Pound  attributes  to 


The  principle  of  selection  being  less  definite,  the  selection  of 
details  is  presumably  less  rigid,  though  many  of  the  details  dis- 
play a  fine  quality.  The  symbolic  range  is  therefore  reduced,  since 
the  form  reduces  the  importance  of  selectiveness,  or  self-directed 
action.  The  movement  is  proportionately  slow  and  wavering— 
indeed  is  frequently  shuffling  and  undistinguished— and  the 
range  of  material  handled  is  limited:  I  do  not  mean  that  the 
poetry  cannot  refer  to  a  great  many  types  of  actions  and  persons, 
but  that  it  can  find  in  them  little  variety  of  value— it  refers  to 
them  all  in  the  same  way,  that  is,  casually.  Mr.  Pound  resembles 
a  village  loafer  who  sees  much  and  understands  little. 

The  following  passage,  however,  the  opening  of  the  fourth 
Canto,  illustrates  this  kind  of  poetry  at  its  best: 

Palace  in  smoky  light, 

Troy  lout  a  heap  of  smouldering  boundary  stones, 

ANAX1FORMINGES!  Aurunculeia! 

Hear  me,  Cadmus  of  Golden  Prows! 

The  silv&r  mirrors  catch  the  bright  stones  and  flare, 

Dawn,  to  our  waking,  drifts  in  the  cool  green  light; 

Dew-haze  blurs,  in  the  grass,  pale  ankles  moving. 

Beat,  beat,  whirr,  thud,  in  the  soft  turf  under  the  apple-trees, 

Choros  nympharum,  goat-foot,  with  the  pale  foot  alternate; 

Crescent  of  blue-shot  waters,  green-gold  in  the  shallows, 

A  black  cock  crows  in  the  sea- foam; 

And  by  the  curved,  carved  foot  of  the  couch,  claw-foot  and 

lion-head,  an  old  man  seated 
Speaking  in  the  low  drone.  .  .  .  : 


Et  ter  ftebiliter,  Ityn,  Ityn! 
And  she  went  toward  the  window  and  cast  her  down 

me,  he  is,  alas,  mistaken.  For  the  rest,  one  may  only  say  that  civilization  rests 
on  the  recognition  that  language  possesses  both  connotative  and  denotative 
powers;  that  the  abandonment  or  one  in  a  poem  impoverishes  the  poem  to  that 
extent;  and  that  the  abandonment  of  the  denotative,  or  rational,  in  particular, 
and  in  a  pure  state,  results  in  one's  losing  the  only  means  available  for  check- 
ing up  on  the  qualitative  or  "ideographic"  sequences  to  see  if  they  really  are 
coherent  in  more  than  vague  feeling.  Mr.  Pound,  in  other  words,  nas  no  way 
of  knowing  whether  he  can  think  or  not. 


"And  the  while,  the  while  swallows  crying: 

"It  is  Cabestans  heart  in  the  dish." 
"It  is  Cabestans  heart  in  the  dish? 
"No  other  taste  shall  change  this." 

The  loveliness  of  such  poetry  appears  to  me  indubitable,  but  it  is 
merely  a  blur  of  revery:  its  tenuity  becomes  apparent  if  one 
compares  it,  for  example,  to  the  poetry  of  Paul  Val6ry,  which 
achieves  effects  of  imagery,  particularly  of  atmospheric  imagery, 
quite  as  extraordinary,  along  with  precision,  depth  of  meaning, 
and  the  power  that  comes  of  close  and  inalterable  organization, 
and,  though  Mr.  Pound's  admirers  have  given  him  a  great  name 
as  a  metrist,  with  incomparably  finer  effects  of  sound. 

Mr.  Kenneth  Burke  defines  the  qualitative  progression33  by 
means  of  a  very  fine  analysis  of  the  preparation  for  the  ghost  in 
Hamlet  and  by  reference  to  the  porter  scene  in  Macbeth,  and 
then  proceeds  to  the  public  house  scene  in  The  Waste  Land  34  as 
if  it  were  equally  valid.  Actually,  the  qualitative  progression  in 
Shakespeare  is  peripheral,  the  central  movement  of  each  play 
being  dependent  upon  what  Mr.  Burke  calls  the  psychology  of 
the  hero,  or  narrative  logic,  and  so  firmly  dependent  that  occa- 
sional excursions  into  the  rationally  irrelevant  can  be  managed 
with  no  loss  of  force,  whereas  in  The  Waste  Land  the  qualitative 
progression  is  central:  it  is  as  if  we  should  have  a  dislocated 
series  of  scenes  from  Hamlet  without  the  prince  himself,  or  with 
too  slight  an  account  of  his  history  for  his  presence  to  be  helpful. 
The  difference  between  Mr.  Eliot  and  Mr.  Pound  is  this:  that  in 
The  Waste  Land,  the  prince  is  briefly  introduced  in  the  foot- 
notes, whereas  it  is  to  be  doubted  that  Mr.  Pound  could  jnanage 
such  an  introduction  were  he  so  inclined.  And  the  allegorical 
interpretation,  or  the  germ  of  one,  which  Mr.  Eliot  has  provided 
helps  very  little  in  the  organization  of  the  poem  itself.  To  guess 
that  the  rain  has  a  certain  allegorical  meaning  when  the  rain  is 
so  indifferently  described,  or  to  guess  at  the  allegorical  relation- 

33  Counterstatement:  page  38  and  thereafter. 
84  Poems  1909-25,  by  T.  S.  Eliot. 


ships  as  a  scholar  might  guess  at  the  connections  between  a  dozen 
odd  pages  recovered  from  a  lost  folio,  is  of  very  small  aid  to  our- 
selves or  to  the  poet. 

If  Mr.  Eliot  and  Mr.  Pound  have  employed  conventions  that 
can  be  likened  to  revery  or  to  random  conversation,  Rimbaud 
and  Mr.  Joyce  have  gone  farther.  I  quote  Rimbaud's  Larme: 

Loin  des  oiseaux,  des  troupeaux,  des  villageoises, 
Je  buvais  accroupi  dans  qu&lque  bmy&re 
Entouree  de  tendres  bois  de  noisetiers, 
Par  un  brouillard  dapres-midi  tiede  et  vert. 

Que  pouvais-je  boire  dans  cette  jeune  Oise, 
Ormeaux  sans  voix,  gazon  sans  fleurs,  del  convert: 
Que  tirais-je  a  la  gourde  de  colocase? 
Quelque  liqueur  dor,  fade  et  qui  fait  suer. 

Tel.  j'eusse  6te  mauvaise  enseigne  d'auberge. 
Puis  Vorage  changea  le  del  jusqu  au  soir. 
Ce  furent  des  pays  noirs,  des  lacs,  des  perches, 
Des  colonnades  sous  la  nuit  bleye,  des  gares. 

L'eau  des  bois  se  perdait  sur  les  sables  vierges. 
Le  vent,  du  del,  jetait  des  glagons  aux  mares  .  .  . 
Or!  tel  quun  pgcheur  d'or  ou  de  coquillages, 
Dire  que  je  nai  pas  eu  souci  de  boirel 

The  feelings  of  this  poem  are  perhaps  those  attendant  upon 
dream,  delirium,  or  insanity.  The  coming  of  night  and  the  storm 
is  an  intensification  of  the  mood;  the  protagonist  is  suddenly 
sucked  deeper  in  the  direction  of  complete  unconsciousness,  and 
the  terror  becomes  more  profound. 

In  Finnegans  Wake,  by  James  Joyce,  the  dream  convention  is 
unmistakable.  It  penetrates  the  entire  texture  of  the  work,  not 
only  the  syntax  but  the  words  themselves,  which  are  broken 
down  and  recombined  in  surprising  ways, 

This  unbalance  of  the  reasonable  and  the  non-reasonable, 
whether  the  non-reason  be  of  the  type  which  I  am  now  dis- 
cussing or  of  the  pseudo-referent  type,  is  a  vice  wherever  it  oc- 
curs, and  in  the  experimental  writers  who  have  worked  very  far 
in  this  direction,  it  is,  along  with  Laforguian  irony,  which  I  shall 
discuss  separately,  one  of  the  two  most  significant  vices  of  style 
now  flourishing.  The  reasons  have  already  been  mentioned  here 
and  there,  but  I  shall  summarize  them. 

Since  only  one  aspect  of  language,  the  connotative,  is  being 
utilized,  less  can  be  said  in  a  given  number  of  words  than  if  the 
denotative  aspect  were  being  fully  utilized  at  the  same  time.  The 
convention  thus  tends  to  diffuseness.  Further,  when  the  denota- 
tive power  of  language  is  impaired,  the  connotative  becomes  pro- 
portionately parasitic  upon  denotations  in  previous  contexts,  for 
words  cannot  have  associations  without  meanings;  and  if  the  de- 
notative power  of  language  could  be  wholly  eliminated,  the 
connotative  would  be  eliminated  at  the  same  stroke,  for  it  is  the 
nature  of  associations  that  they  are  associated  with  something. 
This  means  that  non-rational  writing,  far  from  requiring  greater 
literary  independence  than  the  traditional  modes,  encourages  a 
quality  of  writing  that  is  relatively  derivative  and  insecure. 

Since  one  of  the  means  to  coherence,  or  form,  is  impaired,  form 
itself  is  enfeebled.  In  so  far  as  form  is  enfeebled,  precision  of  de- 
tail is  enfeebled,  for  details  receive  precision  from  the  structure 
in  which  they  function  just  as  they  may  be  employed  to  give  that 
structure  precision;  to  say  that  detail  is  enfeebled  is  to  say  that 
the  power  of  discrimination  is  enfeebled.  Mr.  Joyce's  new  prose 
has  sensitivity,  for  Mr.  Joyce  is  a  man  of  genius,  but  it  is  the 
sensitivity  of  a  plasmodium,  in  which  every  cell  squirms  inde- 
pendently though  much  like  every  other.  This  statement  is  a  very 
slight  exaggeration  if  certain  chapters  are  considered,  notably  the 
chapter  entitled  Anna  Livia  Plurabelle,  but  for  the  greater  part  it 
is  no  exaggeration. 

The  procedure  leads  to  indiscriminateness  at  every  turn.  Mr. 
Joyce  endeavors  to  express  disintegration  by  breaking  down  his 
form,  by  experiencing  disintegration  before  our  very  eyes,  but 
this  destroys  much  of  his  power  of  expression.  Of  course  he  con- 


trols  the  extent  to  which  he  impairs  his  form,  but  this  merely 
means  that  he  is  willing  to  sacrifice  just  so  much  power  of  expres- 
sion—in an  effort  to  express  something— and  no  more.  He  is  like 
Whitman  trying  to  express  a  loose  America  by  writing  loose 
poetry.  This  fallacy,  the  fallacy  of  expressive,  or  imitative,  form, 
recurs  constantly  in  modern  literature. 

Anna  Livia  Plurabelle  is  in  a  sense  a  modern  equivalent  of 
Gray's  Elegy,  one  in  which  the  form  is  expressive  of  the  theme  to 
an  unfortunate  extent;  it  blurs  the  values  of  all  experience  in  the 
fact  of  change,  and  is  unable,  because  of  its  inability  to  deal  with 
rational  experience,  to  distinguish  between  village  Cromwells 
and  the  real  article,  between  Othello  on  the  one  hand  and  on  the 
other  hand  Shem  and  Shaun.  It  leads  to  the  unlimited  sub- 
division of  feelings  into  sensory  details  till  perception  is  lost,  in- 
stead of  to  the  summary  and  ordering  of  perception;  it  leads  to 
disorganization  and  unintelligence.  In  Mr.  Joyce  we  may  observe 
the  decay  of  genius.  To  the  form  of  decay  his  genius  lends  a  be- 
guiling iridescence,  and  to  his  genius  the  decay  lends  a  quality 
of  novelty/which  endanger  the  literature  of  our  time  by  render- 
ing decay  attractive. 

Mr.  T.  S.  Eliot,  in  his  introduction  to  the  Anabase  of  St.  Jean 
Perse,35  has  written :  'There  is  a  logic  of  the  imagination  as  well 
as  a  logic  of  concepts.  People  who  do  not  appreciate  poetry  al- 
ways find  it  difficult  to  distinguish  between  order  and  chaos  in 
the  arrangement  of  images."  Later  in  the  same  essay  he  says:  "I 
believe  that  this  is  a  piece  of  writing  of  the  same  importance  as 
the  later  work  of  Mr.  James  Joyce,  as  valuable  as  Anna  Livia 
Plurabelle.  And  this  is  a  high  estimate  indeed/' 

The  logic  in  the  arrangement  of  images  of  which  Mr.  Eliot 
speaks  either  is  formulable,  is  not  formulable,  or  is  formulated. 
If  it  is  neither  formulated  nor  formulable  (and  he  admits  that  it 
is  not  formulated),  the  word  logic  is  used  figuratively,  to  indicate 
qualitative  progression,  and  the  figure  is  one  which  it  is  hard  to 
pardon  a  professed  classicist  for  using  at  the  present  time.  If  the 
logic  is  formulable,  there  is  no  need  for  an  apology  and  there  is 

*  Anabasis,  a  poem  by  St.  Jean  Perse,  with  translation  and  Preface  by  T.  S. 
Eliot.  Faber  and  Faber,  London:  1930. 


no  excuse  for  the  reference  to  Anna  Livia  Plurabelle;  and  there  is 
reason  to  wonder  why  no  formulation  is  given  or  suggested  by 
the  critic.  Mr.  Eliot  has  reference  obviously,  merely  to  the  type 
of  graduated  progression  of  feeling  that  we  have  been  discussing, 
and  the  poem  shares  the  weakness  of  other  works  already  dis- 

Mr.  Eliot's  remarks  are  typical  of  the  evasive  dallying  prac- 
ticed by  the  greater  number  of  even  the  most  lucid  and  reaction- 
ary critics  of  our  time  when  dealing  with  a  practical  problem  of 
criticism.  It  is  well  enough  to  defend  Christian  morality  and  to 
speak  of  tradition,  but  forms  must  be  defined  and  recognized  or 
the  darkness  remains.  A  classicist  may  admire  the  sensibilities  of 
Joyce  and  Perse  with  perfect  consistency  (though  beyond  a  cer- 
tain point  not  with  perfect  taste),  but  he  cannot  with  consistency 
justify  the  forms  which  those  sensibilities  have  taken. 

If  the  reader  is  curious  to  compare  with  the  Anabase  a  prose 
work  of  comparable  length  and  subject  in  the  traditional  man- 
ner, he  will  find  a  specimen  of  the  highest  merit  in  The  Destruc- 
tion of  Tenochtitlan36  by  William  Carlos  Williams,  which,  like 
the  Anabase,  deals  with  the  military  conquest  of  an  exotic  nation, 
but  which  utilizes  not  only  qualitative  progression  but  every 
other  mode  proper  to  narrative  and  in  a  masterly  way.  The  form 
is  exact;  the  rhetoric  is  varied  and  powerful;  the  details,  unlike 
those  of  the  Anabase,  are  exact  both  as  description  and,  where 
symbolic  force  is  intended,  as  symbols.  Displaying  fullness  and 
precision  of  meaning,  it  is  in  no  wise  "strange"  and  has  been 
ignored.  But  its  heroic  prose  is  superior  to  the  prose  of  Anabase 
and  of  Anna  Livia  Plurabelle,  is  superior  in  all  likelihood  to 
nearly  any  other  prose  of  our  time  and  to  most  of  the  verse. 

The  so-called  stream-of-consciousness  convention  of  the  con- 
temporary novel  is  a  form  of  qualitative  progression.  It  may  or 
may  not  be  used  to  reveal  a  plot,  but  at  best  the  revelation  can  be 
fragmentary  since  the  convention  excludes  certain  important 
functions  of  prose— summary,  whether  narrative  or  expository, 

"  In  the  American  Grain,  by  W.  C.  Williams.  A.  and  C.  Boni,  New  York, 


being  the  chief.  It  approximates  the  manner  of  the  chain  of 
thought  as  it  might  be  imagined  in  the  mind  of  the  protagonist: 
that  is,  it  tends  away  from  the  reconsidered,  the  revised,  and 
tends  toward  the  fallacy  of  imitative  form,  which  I  have  re- 
marked in  the  work  of  Joyce  and  of  Whitman.37  It  emphasizes, 
wittingly  or  not,  abject  imitation  at  the  expense  of  art;  it  is  tech- 
nically naturalism;  it  emphasizes  to  the  last  degree  the  psy- 
chology of  the  hero,  but  the  least  interesting  aspect  of  it,  the  ac- 
cidental. Mr.  Kenneth  Burke,  in  his  novel,  Toward  a  Better 
Life*8  thus  falls  into  the  very  pit  which  he  has  labored  most 
diligently  to  avoid:  he  expends  his  entire  rhetorical  energy  on  his 
sentences,  but  lets  his  story  run  loosely  through  the  mind  of  his 
hero.  The  quality  of  the  detail  is  expository  and  aphoristic;  the 
structure  is  not  expository  but  is  qualitative.  One  feels  a  discrep- 
ancy between  the  detail  and  the  form;  the  detail  appears  labored, 
the  form  careless  and  confused. 

The  convention  of  reminiscence,  a  form  of  the  stream-of- 
consciousness  technique,  which  is  employed  by.  Mr.  Burke  and 
by  others,  fras  a  defect  peculiar  to  itself  alone.  It  commonly  in- 
volves the  assumption,  at  the  beginning  of  a  story,  of  the  state 
of  feeling  proper  to  the  conclusion;  then  by  means  of  revelation, 
detail  by  detail,  the  feeling  is  justified.  In  other  words,  the  initial 
situations  are  befogged  by  unexplained  feeling,  and  the  feeling 
does  not  develop  in  a  clean  relationship  to  the  events.  The  result 
is  usually  a  kind  of  diffuse  lyricism. 


Two  OR  MORE  METHODS  may  be  used  in  formal  arrangements.  In 
a  play  or  novel,  where  there  is  plenty  of  room  for  change,  a  great 

87  This  law  of  literary  aesthetics  has  never  that  I  know  been  stated  explicitly. 
It  might  be  thus  formulated:  Form  is  expressive  invariably  of  the  state  of  mind 
of  the  author;  a  state  of  formlessness  is  legitimate  subject  matter  for  literature, 
and  in- fact  all  subject  matter,  as  such,  is  relatively  formless;  but  the  author  must 
endeavor  to  give  form,  or  meaning,  to  the  formless— in  so  far  as  he  endeavors 
that  his  own  state  of  mind  may  imitate  or  approximate  the  condition  of  the 
matter,  he  is  surrendering  to  the  matter  instead  of  mastering  it.  Form,  in  so  far 
as  it  endeavors  to  imitate  the  formless,  destroys  itself. 

88  Op.  cit. 


many  modes  of  procedure  may  be  employed.  In  a  lyrical  poem 
there  will  seldom  be  more  than  two.  In  Marvell's  To  His  Coy 
Mistress,  for  example,  the  progression  from  stanza  to  stanza  is 
logical,  but  within  each  stanza  the  progression  is  repetitive. 

Mallarm6's  L'Apr&s-Midi  d'un  Faune  illustrates  a  method  to- 
ward which  various  writers  have  tended;  namely  to  shift  out  of 
the  logical  into  the  pseudo-referent  or  qualitative,  back  into  the 
logical,  and  so  on,  but  at  irregular  intervals.  The  appearance  of 
shifting  may  be  due,  of  course,  to  my  own  inability  to  follow  the 
argument,  but  it  appears  to  be  a  real  shifting.  The  faun  recounts 
his  adventure,  trying  to  philosophize  concerning  it:  hence  narra- 
tive alternates  with  what  should  be  exposition,  but  actually  both 
narrative  and  exposition  move  in  a  more  or  less  dreamy  fashion 
at  times,  so  that  the  cleavage  in  method  does  not  coincide  with 
the  cleavage  in  subject  matter. 


A  SHORT  POEM  or  passage  may  be  composed  of  alternating  pas- 
sages of  two  distinct  and  more  or  less  opposed  types  of  feeling, 
or  of  two  types  of  feeling  combined  and  without  discernible 
alternation.  A  long  poem  may  involve  many  types  of  feeling,  but 
where  two  types  alone  are  involved,  one  of  them  is  usually 
ironic:  it  is  with  this  situation  in  particular  that  I  am  here  con- 
cerned. Byron,  for  example,  commonly  builds  up  a  somewhat 
grandiloquent  effect  only  to  demolish  it  by  ridicule  or  by  ludi- 
crous anticlimax.  His  effects  are  crude  in  the  main,  the  poems 
being  ill-written,  but  he  was  the  first  poet  to  embody  on  a  pre- 
tentious scale,  and  to  popularize,  this  common  modern  attitude. 

The  particular  form  which  his  method  has  taken  in  modern 
poetry  is  closely  related  to  the  poetry  of  Jules  Laforgue,  though 
Laforgue  is  not  in  every  case  an  influence.  I  quote  Laforgue's 
Complainte  du  Printemps: 

Permettez,  6  sir&ne, 
Void  que  votre  haleine 
Embaume  la  verveine; 
C'est  le  printem'ps  qui  sam&nel 


— Ce  syst&me,  en  effet,  ram&ne  le  printemps, 
Avec  son  impudent  cortege  d*  excitants. 

Otez  done  ces  mitaines; 
Et  riayez,  inhumaine, 
Que  mes  soughs  your  traine: 
Ousquil  y  a  dela  g&ne  .  .  . 

—Ahl  yeux  bleus  meditant  sur  V ennui  de  leur  art/ 
Et  vous,  jeunes  divins,  aux  soirs  crus  de  hasardl 

Du  geant  &  la  naine, 
Vois,  tout  loon  sire  entraine 
Quelque  contemporaine, 
Prendre  I' air,  par  hygiene  .  .  . 

—Mais  vous  saignez  ainsi  pour  I 'amour  de  I'exil! 
Pour  Vamour  de  I'Amourl  D'ailleurs,  ainsi  soit-il  .  .  . 

T'ai-je  fait  de  la  peine? 
Oh!  viens  vers  les  fontaines 
Ou  tournent  les  phal&nes 
Des  nuits  Elysdennesl 

—Pimb&che  aux  yeux  vaincus,  belldtre  aux  beaux  jarrets, 
Donnez  votre  fumier  a  la  fteur  du  Regret. 

Voila  que  son  haleine 
N'embaum  plus  la  verveine! 
Drdle  de  ph6nom&ne  .  .  . 
Hein,  d  Vannee  prochaine? 

Vierges  d'hier,  ce  soir  traineuses  de  foetus, 
A  genouxl  void  I'heure  ou  se  plaint  l'Ang£lus. 

Nous  n  irons  plus  au  bois, 
Les  pins  sont  eternels, 

Les  cors  ant  des  appels!  .  .  . 
Neiges  des  fdles  mois, 
Vous  serez  mon  missel! 
—Jusquau  jour  du  degel. 

The  opposition  and  cancellation  of  the  two  moods  is  so  obvious 
as  to  need  no  particular  comment:  there  is  romantic  nostalgia 
(romantic  because  it  has  no  discernible  object,  is  a  form  of  un- 
motivated  feeling)  canceled  by  an  immature  irony  (immature 
because  it  depends  upon  the  obviously  but  insignificantly  ridicu- 
lous, as  in  the  third  quatrain,  or  upon  a  kind  of  physical  detail 
which  is  likely  to  cause  pain  to  the  adolescent  but  which  is  not 
likely  to  interest  the  mature,  as  in  couplets  four  and  five).  The 
application  of  the  irony,  in  turn,  deepens  the  nostalgia,  as  in  the 
fourth  quatrain  and  the  conclusion.  It  is  the  formula  for  adoles- 
cent disillusionment:  the  unhappily  "cynical"  reaction  to  the  loss 
of  a  feeling  not  worth  having. 

A  few  years  earlier  than  Laforgue,  Tristan  Corbi&re  had  em- 
ployed the  same  procedure  in  a  few  poems,  most  vigorously  in 
Un  Jeune  Qui  S'en  Va,  but  from  his  greatest  work  (La  Raysode 
Foraine  and  Cris  d'Aveugle,  two  poems  which  are  probably  su- 
perior to  any  French  verse  of  the  nineteenth  century  save  the 
best  of  Baudelaire),  it  is  either  absent  or  has  lost  itself  amid  an 
extremely  complex  cluster  of  feelings. 

Previously  to  Corbi&re,  Gautier  had  written  in  much  the  same 
fashion,  but  usually  of  very  different  subjects.  His  Nostalgies  des 
Obelisques  are  examples.  They  consist  of  two  poems,  mono- 
logues spoken  by  two  Egyptian  obelisks,  one  of  which  has  been 
transported  to  Paris  and  compares  the  Parisian  and  Egyptian 
scenes,  lamenting  the  loss  of  the  latter,  the  other  of  which  re- 
mains behind,  only  to  make  the  same  comparison  but  to  long 
for  Paris.  The  alternations  are  almost  mathematically  balanced, . 
though  occasionally  both  moods  will  rest  on  a  single  image,  as 
when  an  Egyptian  animal  performs  a  grotesquely  ludicrous  ac- 
tion in  magnificent  language.  There  is  not,  in  Gautier,  the  ado- 
lescent mood  of  Laforgue,  for  Gautier  was  a  vastly  abler  rhetori- 
cian and  was  too  astute  to  give  way  to  such  a  mood,  but  there  is 

no  meaning  to  his  experience,  as  it  appears  in  such  poems,  out- 
side of  the  contrast,  and  the  contrast  is  painfully  precise.  Gautier 
resembles  a  child  fascinated  by  the  task  of  separating  and  arrang- 
ing exactly,  blocks  of  exactly  two  colors.  The  moral  sense  of  such 
a  poet  is  too  simple  to  hold  the  interest  for  many  readings.  Mr. 
Eliot  in  his  quatrains  employed  the  same  formula;  in  fact  several 
of  his  most  striking  lines  are  translated  or  imitated  from  Emaux 
et  Camees?* 

Similar  to  Laforgue's  use  of  this  kind  of  irony  is  Mr.  Pound's 
use  of  it  in  Hugh  Selwyn  Mauberly.4Q  The  two  attitudes  at  vari- 
ance in  this  sequence  are  a  nostalgic  longing  of  which  the  visible 
object  is  the  society  of  the  Pre-Raphaelites  and  of  the  related 
poets  of  the  nineties,  and  a  compensatory  irony  which  admits  the 
mediocrity  of  that  society  or  which  at  least  ridicules  its  mediocre 
aspects.  Even  in  the  midst  of  the  most  biting  comment,  the 
yearning  is  unabated: 

The  Burne-Jones  cartons 
Have  preserved  her  eyes; 
Still,  at  the  Tate,  they  teach 
C&phetua  to  rhapsodize; 

Thin,  like  brook-water, 

With  a  vacant  gaze. 

The  English  Rubaiyat  was  still-born 

In  those  days.41 

And  again,  to  quote  an  entire  poem: 

Among  the  pickled  foetuses  and  bottled  bones 

Engaged  in  perfecting  the  catalogue, 

I  found  the  last  scion  of  the 

Senatorial  families  of  Strassbourg,  Monsieur  Verog. 

88  Poems  1909-25,  by  T.  S.  Eliot:  the  series  of  poems  in  octosyllabic  quat- 
rains, of  which  the  most  successful  is  Sweeney  among  the  Nightingales. 

"Hugh  Selwyn  Mavberly,  by  Ezra  Pound.  Included  in  Persons,  by  Ezra 
Pound.  Boni  and  Liveright.  New  York.  1926. 

uYewc  Glauqes,  from  Mannerly. 


For  two  hours  he  talked  of  Gallifet; 
Of  Dowson;  Of  the  Rhymers'  Club; 
Told  me  how  Johnson  (Lionel)  died 
By  falling  from  a  high  stool  in  a  pub  .  .  . 

But  showed  no  trace  of  alcohol 

At  the  autopsy,  privately  performed— 

Tissues  preserved— the  pure  mind 

Arose  toward  Newman  as  the  whiskey  warmed. 

Dowson  found  harlots  cheaper  than  hotels; 

Headlam  for  uplift;  Image  impartially  imbued 

With  raptures  for  Bacchus,  Terpsichore,  and  the  Church 

So  spoke  the  author  of  <(The  Dorian  Mood," 

M.  Verog,  out  of  step  with  the  decade, 
Detached  from  his  contemporaries, 
Neglected  by  the  young, 
Because  of  these  reveries.42 

As  so  often  happens  when  this  kind  of  irony  occurs,  the  poem  is 
guilty  of  a  certain  amount  both  of  doggerel  and  of  verbosity.  It 
is  not  without  virtues,  however;  and  it  is  not  the  best  poem  in 
the  sequence.  It  is  worth  noting  that  the  two  moods  are  not  pre- 
cisely separable  here,  as  in  so  much  of  Eliot  and  of  Gautier,  but 
are  usually  coincident.  This  likewise  is  true  of  the  irony  of  Wal- 
lace Stevens. 

Mr.  Stevens'  commonest  method  of  ironic  comment  is  to  parody 
his  own  style,  with  respect  to  its  slight  affectation  of  elegance;  or 
perhaps  it  were  more  accurate  to  say  that  this  affectation  itself  is 
a  parody,  however  slight,  of  the  purity  of  his  style  in  its  best 
moments.  The  parody  frequently  involves  an  excess  of  allitera- 
tion, as  in  the  opening  lines  of  the  poem  entitled  Of  the  Manner 
of  Addressing  Clouds:43 

43  "Siena  Mi  Fe':  Disfecemi  Maremma."  The  same. 

"This  poem  and  others  by  the  same  author  may  be  found  in:  Harmonium, 
by  Wallace  Stevens,  Alfred  A.  Knopf,  New  York,  1931. 


Gloomy  grammarians  in  golden  gowns, 
Meekly  you  keep  the  mortal  rendezvous.  .  .  . 

The  same  device  is  more  obviously  employed  in  The  Comedian 
as  the  Letter  C,  in  which  appears  an  explicit  statement  of  the 
source  of  the  irony,  his  inability  to  justify  the  practice  of  his  art, 
his  own  lack  of  respect  for  what  he  is  doing,  and  in  which  the 
irony  frequently  descends  to  the  tawdry.  In  some  poems  he  is 
entirely  free  of  the  quality,  as,  for  examples,  in  Sunday  Morning, 
Death  of  a  Soldier,  Of  Heaven  Considered  as  a  Tomb.  In  such 
work,  and  in  those  poems  such  as  that  last  quoted  and,  to  choose 
a  more  ambitious  example,  Le  Monocle  de  Mon  Oncle,  in  which 
the  admixture  is  very  slight,  he  is  probably  the  greatest  poet  of 
his  generation. 

The  double  mood  is  not  strictly  post-romantic,  either  in  Eng- 
lish or  in  French,  nor  is  ironic  poetry,  but  both  are  perhaps  more 
frequently  so,  and  in  pre-romantic  poetry  neither  is  employed  for 
the  purpose  which  I  have  been  describing.  For  instance,  in  Dry- 
den's  MacFtecknoe,  the  combination  of  the  heroic  style  and  the 
satirical  intention  constitutes  a  kind  of  double  mood,  but  there 
is  no  mutual  cancellation;  the  same  is  true  of  Pope's  Dunciad,  of 
La  Pucelle  by  Voltaire,  and  of  a  good  many  other  poems.  Church- 
ill's Dedication  to  Warburton,  in  its  semblance  of  eulogy  actu- 
ally covering  a  very  bitter  attack,  employs  both  irony  (as  distinct 
from  satire)  and  something  that  might  be  called  a  double  mood. 
But  in  all  of  these  examples,  the  poet  is  perfectly  secure  in  his 
own  feelings;  he  is  attacking  something  or  someone  else  from  a 
point  of  view  which  he  regards  as  tenable.  The  essence  of  roman- 
tic irony,  on  the  other  hand,  is  this:  that  the  poet  ridicules  him- 
self for  a  kind  or  degree  of  feeling  which  he  can  neither  approve 
nor  control;  so  that  the  irony  is  simply  the  act  of  confessing  a 
state  of  moral  insecurity  which  the  poet  sees  no  way  to  improve.44 

A  twentieth  century  ironist  who  resembles  the  earlier  ironists 
instead  of  her  contemporaries  is  Miss  Marianne  Moore.  If  one 

"The  relationship  and  partial  indebtedness  of  this  technical  analysis  of 
romantic  irony  to  Irving  Babbitt's  more  general  treatment  of  the  same  subject 
in  Rousseau  and  Romanticism  will  be  evident  to  anyone  familiar  with  the 


can  trust  the  evidence  of  her  earlier  and  shorter  poems,  she  steins 
from  the  early  Elizabethan  epigrammatists.  Turberville,  a  few 
years  before  Spenser  and  Sidney,  writes  To  One  of  Little  Wit: 

I  thee  advise 
If  thou  he  wise 
To  keep  thy  wit 
Though  it  be  small. 
'Tis  hard  to  get 
And  far  to  fet— 
'Twas  ever  yet 
Dearst  ware  of  all. 

Miss  Moore  writes  To  an  Intramural  Rat:45 

You  make  me  think  of  many  men 
Once  met,  to  he  forgot  again, 

Or  merely  resurrected 
In  a  parenthesis  of  wit 
That  found  them  hastening  through  it 

Too  brisk  to  he  inspected. 

In  Miss  Moore's  later  work,  the  same  quality  is  developed 
through  a  very  elaborate  structure,  in  which  the  magnificent  and 
the  curious  are  combined  with  the  ironical  and  the  ludicrous:  I 
have  in  mind  in  particular  such  poems  as  My  Apish  Cousins 
(later  entitled  The  Monkey s),  New  York,  A  Grave,  and  Black 
Earth.  These  poems  illustrate  perfectly  Miss  Moore's  virtues:  un- 
shakable certainty  of  intention,  a  diction  at  once  magnificent 
and  ironic  (her  cat,  for  example,  in  My  Apish  Cousins,  raises 
Gautier's  formula  for  fantastic  zoology  into  the  realm  of  high 
art),  and  the  fairly  consistent  control  of  an  elaborate  rhetoric. 
They  suggest  her  weaknesses,  which  are  more  evident  in  other 
poems:  a  tendency  to  a  rhetoric  more  complex  than  her  matter, 
a  tendency  to  be  led  astray  by  opportunities  for  description,  and 
a  tendency  to  base  her  security  on  a  view  of  manners  instead  of 

48  Observations,  by  Marianne  Moore,  The  Dial  Press,  New  York,  1924. 


The  romantic  antithesis  of  moods  is  the  central  theme  of  Joyce's 
Ulysses,  which,  at  the  same  time,  is  rendered  diffuse  by  a  stream- 
of-consciousness  technique  and  by  the  fallacy  of  imitative  form.46 
The  book  has  great  virtues,  which  its  admirers  have  long  since 
fully  enumerated,  but  it  lacks  final  precision  both  of  form  and  of 
feeling.  It  is  adolescent  as  Laforgue  is  adolescent;  it  is  ironic  about 
feelings  which  are  not  worth  the  irony. 

Mr.  Kenneth  Burke's  novel,  Towards  a  Better  Life,  displays 
the  same  kind  of  irony,  which  adds  to  the  confusion  coming  from 
other  sources  which  I  have  already  mentioned.  Mr.  Burke,  in- 
stead of  giving  us  the  progression  of  a  narrative,  endeavors,  as  I 
have  said,  to  give  us  a  progression  of  pure  feeling.  Frequently 
there  is  not  even  progression;  we  have  merely  a  repetitious  series 
of  Laforguian  antitheses. 

Mr.  Burke,  in  his  volume  of  criticism,  Counter  statement,  offers 
the  best  defense  with  which  I  am  familiar,  of  the  attitudes  to 
which  I  am  now  objecting.47  He  writes:  "The  ironist  is  essentially 
impure,  even  in  the  chemical  sense  of  purity,  since  he  is  divided. 
He  must  deprecate  his  own  enthusiasms,  and  distrust  his  own  re- 
sentments. He  will  unite  waveringly,  as  the  components  of  his 
attitude,  'dignity,  repugnance,  the  problematical,  and  art/  To  the 
slogan-minded,  the  ralliers  about  a  flag,  the  marchers  who  con- 
vert a  simple  idea  into  a  simple  action,  he  is  an  'outsider/  Yet  he 
must  observe  them  with  nostalgia,  he  must  feel  a  kind  of  awe  for 
their  fertile  assurance,  even  while  remaining  on  the  alert  to  stifle 
it  with  irony  each  time  he  discovers  it  growing  in  unsuspected 
quarters  within  himself/' 

In  admitting  no  distinction  save  that  between  the  ironist  and 
the  slogan-minded,  Mr.  Burke  himself  verges  upon  a  dangerous 
enthusiasm,  perhaps  even  upon  a  slogan.  The  whole  issue  comes 
down  to  the  question  of  how  carefully  one  is  willing  to  scrutinize 
his  feelings  and  correct  them.  Miss  Rowena  Lockett  once  re- 
marked to  me  that  Laforgue  resembles  a  person  who  speaks  with 
undue  harshness  and  then  apologizes;  whereas  he  should  have 
made  the  necessary  subtractions  before  speaking.  The  objection 

46  Ulysses,  by  James  Joyce,  Shakespeare  and  Co.,  Paris. 

47  In  the  essay  on  Thomas  Mann  and  Andrd  Gide,  pages  116  and  following. 


implies  an  attitude  more  sceptical  and  cautious  than  that  of  Mr. 
Burke;  instead  of  irony  as  the  remedy  for  the  unsatisfactory  feel- 
ing, it  recommends  the  waste-basket  and  a  new  beginning.  And 
this  recommendation  has  its  basis  not  only  in  morality  but  in 
aesthetics:  the  romantic  ironists  whom  I  have  cited  write  imper- 
fectly in  proportion  to  their  irony;  their  attitude,  which  is  a  cor- 
ruption of  feeling,  entails  a  corruption  of  style— that  is,  the  irony 
is  an  admission  of  careless  feeling,  which  is  to  say  careless  writ- 
ing, and  the  stylist  is  weak  in  proportion  to  the  grounds  for  his 
irony.  To  see  this,  one  has  only  to  compare  the  best  work  of  these 
writers  to  the  best  of  Churchill,  Pope,  Gay,  Marot,  or  Voltaire. 
Mr.  Burke  states  elsewhere:48  "The  'sum  total  of  art'  relieves 
the  artist  of  the  need  of  seeing  life  steadily  and  seeing  it  whole. 
He  will  presumably  desire  to  be  as  comprehensive  as  he  can,  but 
what  he  lacks  in  adjustability  can  be  supplied  by  another  artist 
affirming  some  other  pattern  with  equal  conviction/' 

Except  for  the  likelihood  that  two  opposite  excesses  may  not  be 
equivalent  to  something  intelligent,  Mr.  Burke's  statement  may 
up  to  a  certain  point  be  well  enough  for  Society  (whatever  the 
word  may  mean  in  this  connection),  but  from  the  standpoint  of 
the  individual  seeking  to  train  himself,  it  is  not  very  helpful. 

Mr.  Burke  does  give  the  artist  a  morality,  however:  he  bases  it 
upon  what  he  believes  Society  needs:  "Alignment  of  forces.  On 
the  side  of  the  practical:  efficiency,  prosperity,  material  acquisi- 
tions, increased  consumption,  'new  needs/  expansion,  higher 
standards  of  living,  progressive  rather  than  regressive  evolutions, 
in  short  ubiquitous  optimism.  .  .  .  On  the  side  of  the  aesthetic 
(the  Bohemian):  inefficiency,  indolence,  dissipation,  vacillation, 
mockery,  distrust,  'hypochondria/  non-conformity,  bad  sports- 
manship, in  short,  negativism.  We  have  here  a  summary  of  the 
basic  notion  of  all  of  Mr.  Burke's  writings,  the  doctrine  of  bal- 
anced excesses.  Perhaps  they  will  balance  each  other,  and  perhaps 
not,  but  suppose  a  man  should  desire  to  be  intelligent  with  regard 
to  himself  alone;  suppose,  in  other  words,  a  particular  artist 
should  lack  entirely  the  high  altruism  which  Mr.  Burke  demands 
of  him— of  what  value  will  he  find  Mr.  Burke's  morality?  Mr. 

18  Counterstatement:  the  chapter  called  Lexicon  Rhetoricae:  page  231. 


Burke's  doctrine,  in  the  realms  of  art  and  of  morality,  is  really  the 
least  sceptical,  the  most  self-confident  possible:  no  point  of  view  is 
tenable  and  hence  no  feeling  is  adequately  motivated;  all  feeling 
is  thus  seen  to  be  excessive,  and  neither  more  nor  less  excessive 
than  any  other,  for  there  is  no  standard  of  measurement;  any 
excess  can  be  canceled  by  an  opposite  excess,  which  is  automati- 
cally equal,  and  careful  evaluation,  as  it  is  impossible,  is  likewise 

I  have  stated  the  matter  very  baldly,  but  quite  fairly.  Any  artist 
holding  Mr.  Burke's  views,  in  so  far  as  he  is  an  artist,  will  be  re- 
strained more  or  less  by  his  natural  feeling  for  Tightness  of  ex- 
pression; but  as  the  theory  does  not,  if  pushed  to  its  conclusions, 
admit  the  existence  of  Tightness,  the  theory  encourages  shoddy 
writing  and  shoddy  living.  The  hero  of  Mr.  Burke's  novel  goes 
mad,  for  the  reason  that,  the  need  of  judgment  having  been  re- 
moved by  his  (and  Mr.  Burke's)  theories,  the  power  of  judgment 
atrophies;  yet  Mr.  Burke  continues  to  preach  the  doctrine  which 
brought  him  to  this  end. 

The  perfect  embodiment  of  Mr.  Burke's  doctrines,  whether  as 
an  individual  man,  or  as  an  allegorical  representation  of  Society, 
is  that  Shan  O'Neale  who  flourished  in  Ireland  in  the  sixteenth 
century,  and  whose  character  David  Hume  has  described  as  fol- 
lows in  his  History  of  England:  "He  was  a  man  equally  noted  for 
his  pride,  his  violence,  his  debaucheries,  and  his  hatred  of  the 
English  nation.  He  is  said  to  have  put  some  of  his  followers  to 
death  because  they  endeavored  to  introduce  the  use  of  bread 
after  the  English  fashion.  Though  so  violent  an  enemy  to  luxury, 
he  was  extremely  addicted  to  riot;  and  was  accustomed,  after  his 
intemperance  had  thrown  him  into  a  fever,  to  plunge  his  body 
into  the  mire,  that  he  might  allay  the  flame  which  he  had  raised 
by  former  excesses." 



I  SHALL  ENDEAVOR  to  define  a  concept  which  is  fundamental  to 
any  discussion  of  poetry,  and  shall  employ  to  indicate  the  concept 
the  terms  convention  and  conventional.  In  popular  speech,  these 
terms  are  frequently  synonymous  with  banality  and  banal;  in 
discussions  of  literary  technique,  the  term  convention  frequently 
signifies  a  fixed  and  generally  accepted  device  for  the  simplified 
representation  of  some  particular  kind  of  truth,  as:  the  pastoral 
convention,  the  convention  of  the  dramatic  unities,  the  conven- 
tion of  the  dramatic  chorus.  The  sense  in  which  I  shall  use  the 
term  is  not  unrelated  to  these,  but  it  is  none  the  less  distinct  from 
them.  It  is  a  sense  which  is  perhaps  more  difficult  to  grasp,  which 
also  is  frequently  vaguely  implicit  in  the  use  of  the  word  for  both 
of  the  above  meanings. 

It  should  be  remembered  in  connection  with  this  and  other 
definitions  that  a  critical  term  ordinarily  indicates  a  quality,  and 
not  an  objectively  demonstrable  entity,  yet  that  every  term  in 
criticism  is  an  abstraction,  that  is,  in  a  sense,  is  statistical  or  quan- 
titative in  its  own  nature.  This  means  that  no  critical  term  can 
possibly  be  more  than  a  very  general  indication  of  the  nature  of 
a  perception.  Philosophy  labors  under  the  same  difficulty,  since 
all  generalization  is  made  from  perception,  or  from  experience 
inextricably  involved  in  perception.  There  is  nothing  revolution- 
ary about  such  a  statement,  but  it  needs  to  be  kept  in  mind. 
Much  of  the  Socratic  hair-splitting  of  some  of  the  more  recent 
critics  arises  from  a  failure  to  observe  in  particular  instances  that 
any  critical  definition  is  merely  an  indication  of  a  unique  experi- 
ence which  cannot  be  exactly  represented  by  any  formula,  though 


it  may  be  roughly  mapped  out;  and  it  is  frequently  of  greater 
importance  to  discover  something  of  the  nature  of  the  experience 
than  to  reduce  the  more  or  less  expert  formula  to  something 
simpler  and  still  less  veracious  and  then  to  demolish  it. 

When  one  speaks  of  standards  of  critical  judgment,  one  does 
not  ordinarily  think  of  weights  and  measures.  One  has  in  mind 
certain  feelings  of  Tightness  and  completeness,  which  have  been 
formed  in  some  measure,  refined  in  a  large  measure,  through  a 
study  of  the  masters.  The  terms  that  one  will  use  as  a  critic  will 
stand  for  those  feelings.  Definitions  of  such  terms  can  never  be 
exact  beyond  misconstruction,  but  by  dint  of  careful  description 
and  the  use  of  good  examples,  one  may  succeed  in  communicat- 
ing standards  with  reasonable  accuracy— to  those,  at  least,  to 
whom  it  is  important  that  communication  should  be  made.  For 
if  values  cannot  be  measured,  they  can  be  judged;  and  the  bare 
existence  of  both  art  and  criticism  shows  the  persistence  of  the 
conviction  that  accuracy  of  judgment  is  at  least  ideally  possible, 
and  that  the  best  critics,  despite  the  inevitable  margin  of  differ- 
ence, and 'despite  their  inevitable  duller  moments,  approximate 
accuracy  fairly  closely:  by  that,  I  mean  that  great  men  tend  to 
agree  with  each  other,  and  the  fact  is  worth  taking  seriously.  I 
am  more  or  less  aware  of  the  extent  of  the  catalogue  of  disagree- 
ments that  might  be  drawn  up  in  reply  to  such  a  statement,  but 
it  is  far  less  astounding  than,  let  us  say,  the  unanimity  of  the  best 
minds  on  the  subject  of  Homer  and  Vergil,  particularly  if  we 
accept  the  doctrine  of  relativism  with  any  great  seriousness. 

The  two  paragraphs  foregoing  are  not  to  be  regarded  as  a  plea 
for  intellectual  amateurism  or  for  any  kind  of  impressionism. 
Definition  should  be  as  exact  as  possible,  as  professional  as  possi- 
ble. It  is  through  the  definition  of  others  that  we  learn  of  realms 
of  perception  that  we  have  overlooked,  and  are  brought  to  a  posi- 
tion in  which  we  may  attempt  judgment  and  perhaps  arrive  at 
approbation.  But  there  are  limits  to  language,  and  the  failure  to 
remember  this  fact,  even  though  one  may  grant  it  readily  as  a 
formal  proposition,  can  lead  to  nothing  save  incomprehension  on 
the  part  of  a  reader  and  obscurantism  on  the  part  of  a  writer. 

Keeping  these  warnings  in  mind,  the  reader  is  now  requested 

to  examine  carefully  the  two  poems  following.  The  first  is  en- 
titled Eros1  and  is  by  Robert  Bridges;  the  second  2  has  no  title, 
and  is  by  William  Carlos  Williams. 

Why  hast  thou  nothing  in  thy  face? 
Thou  idol  of  the  human  race, 
Thou  tyrant  of  the  human  heart. 
The  flower  of  lovely  youth  that  art; 
Yea,  and  that  standest  in  thy  youth 
An  image  of  eternal  truth, 
With  thy  exuberant  flesh  so  fair, 
That  only  Pheidias  might  compare, 
Ere  from  his  chaste  marmoreal  form 
Time  had  decayed  the  colors  warm; 
Like  to  his  gods  in  thy  proud  dress 
Thy  starry  sheen  of  nakedness. 

Surely  thy  body  is  thy  mind, 
For  in  thy  face  is  nought  to  find, 
Only  thy  soft  unchristened  smile, 
That  shadows  neither  love  nor  guile, 
But  shameless  will  and  power  immense, 
In  secret  sensuous  innocence. 

0  king  of  joy,  what  is  thy  thought? 

1  dream  thou  knowest  it  is  nought. 

And  wouldst  in  darkness  come,  hut  thou 
Makest  the  light  where'er  thou  go. 
Ah,  yet  no  victim  of  thy  grace, 
None  who  ere  longed  for  thy  embrace, 
Hath  cared  to  look  upon  thy  face. 

1  Shorter  Poems,  by  Robert  Bridges.  Oxford  Press,  1931. 
8  Spring  and  All,  by  William  Carlos  Williams,  Contact  Publishing  Company, 
Paris,  1923. 


By  the  road  to  the  contagious  hospital 

under  the  surge  of  the  blue 

mottled  clouds  driven  from  the 

northeast— a  cold  wind.  Beyond,  the 

waste  of  broad  muddy  fields 

brown  with  dried  weeds,  standing  and  fallen 

patches  of  standing  water 
the  scattering  of  tall  trees 

All  along  the  road  the  reddish 
purplish,  forked,  upstanding,  twiggy 
stuff  of  bushes  and  small  trees 
with  dead,  brown  leaves  under  them 
leafless  vines- 
Lifeless  in  appearance,  sluggish 
dazed  spring  approaches— 

They  enter  the  new  world  naked, 
cold,  uncertain  of  all 
save  that  they  enter.  All  about  them 
the  cold  familiar  wind- 
Now  the  grass,  tomorrow 
the  stiff  curl  of  wildcarrot  leaf 

One  by  one  objects  are  defined— 
It  quickens:  clarity,  outline  of  leaf 

But  now  the  stark  dignity  of 
entrance— Still,  the  profound  change 
has  come  upon  them:  rooted  they 
grip  down  and  begin  to  awaken. 

A  scutiny  of  these  poems  will  show  that  most  of  the  poetic 
power  is  concentrated  in  less  than  half  the  number  of  the  lines;  in 

the  first  poem,  the  greatest  power  is  reached  in  the  middle  para- 
graph, and  in  the  second  poem  it  is  reached  in  the  eight  lines 
beginning  Lifeless  in  appearance.  The  remaining  lines  in  each 
poem  vary  in  power;  the  chief  virtue  of  many  of  the  lines  in  each 
poem  may  seem  at  first  glance  to  reside  in  the  plain  conveyance 
of  necessary  information. 

And  yet  the  first  glance,  if  it  has  led  to  this  conclusion,  is 
illusory.  The  passages  of  the  greatest  power  lose  much  of  their 
power  in  isolation :  therefore  one  is  justified  in  saying  that  some- 
thing essentially  poetic  suffuses  the  entire  structure. 

This  "something"  I  shall  name  the  convention  of  the  poem:  I 
shall  use  the  term  convention  to  indicate  the  initial  assumption 
of  feeling,  or  value,  to  which  the  poem  is  laying  claim.  It  is  not 
equivalent  to  the  term  style,  though  style  is  necessary  to  the 
establishment  and  maintenance  of  convention.  Again,  convention 
is  distinct  from  any  set  of  technical  devices,  though  technical 
devices  will  be  employed  in  the  establishment  of  any  convention. 
The  convention  of  a  poem  is  not,  finally,  a  part  or  ingredient  of  a 
poem,  for  a  poem  is  a  unit,  and  the  dissection  of  it  is  artificial, 
though  frequently  valuable  if  one  recognize  the  nature  of  the 
process.  Convention  is  an  aspect  of  poetry  that  can  best  be  ex- 
plained by  illustration. 

Consider  the  opening  lines  of  the  poem  by  Williams.  The 
nervous  meter,  words  like  "surge,"  "mottled,"  "driven,"  suggest 
an  intensity  of  feeling  not  justified  by  the  actual  perceptions  in 
the  lines.  These  words  are  therefore  conventional.  The  content 
of  the  passage  is  factual  to  a  greater  degree  than  it  is  perceptual, 
and  in  itself  has  extremely  little  interest.  In  thus  describing  the 
lines,  I  employ  the  terms  perception  and  perceptual  solely  with 
reference  to  the  awareness  of  the  author  of  fine  relationships  be- 
tween facts  observed  (or  perceived  directly)  and  language,  or  the 
medium  of  judgment  and  communication.  More  feeling  is  as- 
sumed, or  claimed,  by  the  poet,  in  a  passage  such  as  that  under 
discussion,  than  is  justified  by  his  language:  he  claims  more  than 
he  is  able  to  communicate,  or  more,  perhaps,  than  he  chooses  to 
communicate.  At  first  glance  a  passage  of  this  sort  appears  a  trifle 
strained,  to  use  a  common  but  somewhat  vague  epithet.  But  in 


the  present  poem,  the  strain  is  deliberately  sought  and  exactly 
rendered.  The  tempo  established  in  these  lines,  the  whole  quality 
of  the  feeling,  the  information  conveyed,  are  all  necessary  to,  in 
fact  are  a  part  of,  the  effect  of  the  eight  central  lines.  With  the 
line  beginning  'lifeless  in  appearance"  the  intensity  claimed  by 
the  opening  is  at  once  justified  and  increased  by  the  quality  of 
the  perception :  the  initial  assumption  prepares  one  for  the  exact 
increase  which  occurs,  and  the  preparation  is  necessary.  The  feel- 
ing of  the  last  two  of  the  eight  central  lines  (Now  the  grass,  etc,) 
differs  widely  from  the  feeling  in  the  preceding  six,  but  is  de- 
pendent largely  upon  the  feeling  already  established  in  the  pre- 
ceding six  for  its  existence.  The  feeling  is  one  of  pathos,  aroused 
by  the  small  and  familiar  in  austere  and  unfriendly  surroundings. 
It  is  related  to  the  feeling  of  Animula  Vagula.  The  last  six  lines 
of  Williams'  poem  revert  to  the  conventional  level,  but  carry  with 
them,  if  read  in  their  context,  an  echo  of  the  precedent  intensity. 

My  analysis  of  the  poem  has  been  oversimplified  for  the  sake 
of  momentary  convenience.  The  conventional  passages  are  not 
devoid  of  perceptual  value:  the  skill  with  which  the  details  of  the 
landscape  are  placed  in  juxtaposition  in  the  opening  lines  is  in 
itself  an  act  of  perception.  The  beat,  also,  in  lines  nine,  ten,  and 
eleven,  taken  in  conjunction  with  the  material  described,  has 
perceptual  value,  and  one  could  point  out  other  details.  The  de- 
tails are  not  of  a  uniform  level  of  intensity:  no  two  details  can 
be  so.  The  important  thing  for  the  moment  is  that  the  intensity 
claimed  by  the  passage  is  on  the  whole  in  excess  of  the  justifica- 
tion within  the  passage,  and  that  the  intensity  assumed  is  indi- 
cated with  the  greatest  of  firmness,  with  the  result  that  departures 
from  it  can  be  made  with  equal  firmness. 

For  example,  I  have  said  that  the  beat  in  lines  nine,  ten,  and 
eleven  has  perceptual  value,  as  indicating  the  "twiggy"  appear- 
ance of  the  landscape.  Yet  the  meaning-content  (as  distinct  from 
the  sound-content)  of  every  adjective  contributing  to  this  percep- 
tion is  a  little  vague:  "reddish,"  "purplish,"  for  instance,  are  by 
definition  uncertain  in  their  import.  But  the  vagueness  is  willed 
and  controlled:  one  has  a  definite  measure  of  vagueness  set 
against  the  definite  intensity  of  the  meter.  To  make  these  percep- 


tions  more  precise  would  lessen  the  impact  of  the  central  lines. 
This  mastery  of  emphases  and  of  the  conventional  is  one  of  the 
marks,  and  probably  the  most  important  mark,  of  the  great  styl- 
ist: without  this  mastery  poetry  degenerates  into  slipshod  senti- 
ment at  worst,  and  at  best,  as  in  much  of  Crane,  into  brilliant,  but 
disconnected,  epithets  and  ejaculations. 

Conventional  language,  then,  is  not  in  itself  stereotyped  lan- 
guage, though  a  strongly  defined  convention  may  safely  carry  a 
little  stereotyped  language:  in  fact  stereotyped  language  may 
often  be  used  deliberately  to  establish  a  convention.  Conventional 
language  is  not  dead  language,  but  rather  is  very  subtly  living,  if 
well  employed.  In  so  far  as  any  passage  is  purely  conventional, 
that  is,  conventional  as  distinct  from  perceptual,  it  does  not  repre- 
sent a  perception  of  its  own  content,  the  feeling  it  assumes  is  not 
justified  within  the  passage  in  question.  When  I  speak  of  conven- 
tional language,  I  shall  mean  language  in  which  the  perceptual 
content  is  slight  or  negligible.  A  conventional  passage,  the  adjec- 
tive conventional  being  employed  in  this  sense,  is  poetic,  however, 
in  so  far  as  it  is  essential  to  the  entire  poetic  intention,  that  is,  in 
so  far  as  its  effects  reach  forward  or  backward  within  the  poem. 

Let  me  resume  my  definitions  briefly,  that  I  may  add  a  little 
more  before  proceeding.  Poetic  convention  is  the  initial,  or  basic, 
assumption  of  feeling  in  any  poem,  from  which  all  departures 
acquire  their  significance.  The  convention  of  a  poem  is  present, 
or  at  least  discernible  as  the  norm  of  feeling,  throughout  the  en- 
tire poem,  so  that  in  a  sense  all  the  language  of  a  poem  is  con- 
ventional; but  when  I  use  the  term  conventional  language  I  shall 
commonly  be  speaking  of  passages  in  which  the  perceptual  justi- 
fication of  the  feeling  is  slight.  I  shall  likewise  use  the  term  con- 
ventional in  a  generic  sense,  to  indicate  a  type  of  convention,  as: 
the  Laforguian  convention,  the  pseudo-referent  convention.  The 
context  will  ordinarily  render  my  intention  perfectly  clear. 

But  I  am  concerned  for  the  moment  with  the  subject  of  par- 
ticular convention,  primarily.  The  conventional  intensity  in  the 
poem  by  Williams  was  somewhat  in  excess  of  the  perceptual  value 
of  many  lines  in  the  poem;  it  would,  as  I  said,  appear  slightly 
strained  to  many  readers.  This  feeling  of  strain  is  not  necessarily 


concomitant  with  convention;  in  the  poem  by  Bridges  there  is  no 
such  strain.  The  movement  of  Bridges1  poem  is  quiet;  the  lan- 
guage, like  that  of  Williams,  is  plain,  but  it  verges  more  nearly 
on  the  stereotyped  than  does  the  language  of  Williams  in  the 
poem  quoted.  The  intensity  assumed  is  at  a  more  familiar  level  of 
initial  assumption  and  so  appears  never  to  be  in  excess  of  the 
least  important  fact  conveyed:  that  is,  the  convention  is  nearer 
to  the  matter-of-fact  tone  of  prose  than  is  the  convention  em- 
ployed by  Williams.  Strangely  enough,  a  convention  of  such  a 
type  can  serve,  as  on  this  occasion,  with  perfect  effectiveness  in 
a  poem  of  the  most  powerful  feeling. 

I  shall  now  give  a  brief  account  of  a  few  general  terms  deduci- 
ble  from  these  ideas  regarding  convention : 

I.  Traditional  poetry  is  poetry  which  endeavors  to  utilize  the 
greatest  possible  amount  of  the  knowledge  and  wisdom,  both 
technical  and  moral,  but  technical  only  in  so  far  as  it  does  not 
obstruct  the  moral,  to  be  found  in  precedent  poetry.  It  assumes 
the  ideal  Existence  of  a  normal  quality  of  feeling,  a  normal  con- 
vention, to  which  the  convention  of  any  particular  poem  should 
more  or  less  conform.  Actually,  the  conformity  of  any  poem, 
even  though  the  traditional  norm  could  be  exactly  defined  or 
could  be  found  embodied  in  a  single  work  (Lady  Winchilsea's 
flawlessly  beautiful  and  eminently  traditional  poems  The  Tree 
or  The  Change,  or  George  Herbert's  Church  Monuments*) , 
would  be  impossible,  since  every  poem,  good  or  bad,  is  unique. 
But  if  we  cannot  lay  a  finger  precisely  upon  the  norm,  we  can 
recognize  the  more  or  less  normal.  If  the  reader  does  not  follow 
me,  let  me  point  out  that  it  is  easy  to  recognize  the  Laforguian 
convention  in  Apollinaire,  in  the  early  Eliot,  and  in  Pound's 
Mauberly,  or  the  Miltonic  convention,  even  though  indifferently 
managed,  in  Thomson  and  in  Wordsworth.  The  traditional 
norm  is  less  obviously  discernible,  for  it  embraces  a  wider  variety 
of  essential  qualities,  and  no  one  of  them  receives  so  marked  an 
emphasis.  One  might  describe  it  negatively  as  that  type  of  poetry 
which  displays  at  one  and  the  same  time  the  greatest  possible  dis- 
tinction with  the  fewest  possible  characteristics  recognizable  as 

the  marks  of  any  particular  school,  period,  or  man;  as,  in  brief, 
that  type  of  poetry  which  displays  the  greatest  polish  of  style  and 
the  smallest  trace  of  mannerism.  One  may  describe  traditional 
poetry  positively  by  saying  that  it  possesses  these  closely  related 
qualities:  (1)  equivalence  of  motivation  and  feeling;  (2)  a  form 
that  permits  a  wide  range  of  feeling;  (3)  a  conventional  norm  of 
feeling  which  makes  for  a  minimum  of  "strain";  (4)  a  form  and 
a  convention  which  permit  the  extraction  from  every  unit  of  lan- 
guage of  its  maximum  content,  both  of  connotation  and  of  deno- 
tation; that  is,  a  form  and  a  convention  which  are  in  the  highest 
degree  economical,  or  efficient. 

II.  Experimental  poetry  endeavors  to  widen  the  racial  experi- 
ence, or  to  alter  it,  or  to  get  away  from  it,  by  establishing  abnor- 
mal conventions.  In  one  sense  or  another  Spenser,  Donne,  Mil- 
ton, Hopkins,  Laforgue,  and  Rimbaud  are  experimental  poets  of 
a  very  marked  kind.  The  most  striking  example  in  English  of  a 
convention  of  heightened  intensity  (that  is,  of  what  the  unsym- 
pathetic might  call  poetic  strain)  is  to  be  found  in  Paradise  Lost. 
When  the  poem  does  not  achieve  grandeur,  it  is  grandiloquent; 
yet  the  quality  of  the  grandiloquence  could  have  been  achieved 
only  by  a  master  of  the  highest  order,  and  without  it  the  poem 
could  hardly  have  been  accomplished.  As  an  act  of  invention,  of 
daring  experiment,  the  creation  of  Miltonic  blank  verse,  both 
meter  and  rhetoric,  is  not  equaled  in  English  poetry;  in  fact  one 
is  tempted  to  wonder  if  it  is  equaled  in  any  other.  The  perils 
amid  which  Milton  ventured  and  which  he  avoided  with  perfect 
equanimity  are  best  estimated  by  a  consideration  of  his  disciples. 
Yet  in  spite  of  his  mastery,  the  emphatic  and  violent  rhetoric 
which  he  created  limits  his  range,  as  compared  to  the  range  of 
Shakespeare,  a  man  of  comparable  genius  but  working  in  a  series 
of  conventions  which  are  relatively  traditional.  The  same  rela- 
tionship holds  between  the  sonnets  of  the  two  men,  and  is  the 
more  readily  discernible,  perhaps,  because  of  the  smaller  form. 
Milton  is  the  more  complex  rhetorician,  but  the  simpler  moralist 
and  a  man  of  far  less  subtle  perception.  Milton  is  the  nobler,  but 
Milton's  nobility  is  in  part,  and  as  compared  to  Shakespeare,  the 
over-emphasis  of  imperception. 


An  experimental  poet  may  be  traditional  in  many  aspects. 
Thus  Crashaw,  who  carries  certain  experimental  qualities  of  dic- 
tion and  image  found  in  Donne  much  farther  from  the  norm 
than  even  Donne  ventured,  is  nevertheless  traditional  in  that  he 
utilizes  by  means  of  discreet  suggestion  the  more  emphatic  and 
experimental  metrical  forms  of  the  sixteenth  century  to  suggest 
complexities  of  feeling  not  possible  in  those  metrical  forms  as  the 
poets  of  the  sixteenth  century  used  them.  He  suggests  the  song- 
books  in  his  devotional  poetry,  as  he  therein  utilizes  the  common 
imagery  of  the  Petrarchan  love  lyric.  Dr.  W.  C.  Williams,  an 
experimental  poet  by  virtue  of  his  meter,  is  in  other  qualities  of 
his  language  one  of  the  most  richly  traditional  poets  of  the  past 
hundred  and  fifty  years;  in  fact,  making  allowances  for  his  some- 
what narrow  intellectual  scope,  one  would  be  tempted  to  com- 
pare him,  in  this  respect,  to  such  poets  as  Hardy  and  Bridges.  No 
two  experimental  conventions  will  have  similar  poetic  results; 
one  cannot  predicate  a  great  deal  that  is  important  of  experimen- 
tal poetry  in  general;  but,  as  one  might  suspect,  some  Forms  of 
experimental  poetry  have  had  dire  results,  and  of  individual 
types  of  convention  one  can  frequently  say  a  great  deal. 

III.  Pseudo-traditional  or  "literary"  poetry  is  the  work  of 
writers  insufficiently  aware  of  what  they  have  stylistically  and 
morally  in  common  with  the  best  poetry  of  the  race  to  master  this 
common  element  (I  am  referring,  of  course,  to  a  common  dis- 
tinction, skill,  and  moral  intelligence,  that  which  one  may  find 
in  Campion,  Jonson,  and  Herrick)  and  in  a  manner  of  speaking 
to  take  it  for  granted.  The  literary  poet,  cut  off  from  his  tradi- 
tion by  education,  for  he  usually  occurs  in  the  late  eighteenth, 
the  nineteenth,  or  the  twentieth  century,  regards  the  tradition  as 
something  exotic,  and  employs  it  accordingly.  He  imitates  the 
idioms  of  the  traditional  poet,  but  they  are  no  longer  for  him  fa- 
miliar and  exact;  they  are  foreign  and  decorative;  they  degener- 
ate into  mannerism.  He  comes  to  regard  certain  words,  phrases, 
or  rhythms,  as  intrinsically  poetic,  rather  than  as  instruments  of 
perception  or  as  the  clues  to  generative  ideas.  His  imitation  is 
thus  crude,  as  we  can  see  by  comparing  the  pseudo-Elizabethan 

meters  of  Beddoes  to  the  meters  of  Campion,  the  meters  of  Chat- 
terton  to  the  meters  of  the  best  lyrics  of  the  thirteenth  century, 
the  meters  of  Swinburne  to  the  meters  of  Sidney,  from  which 
they  are  frequently  derived. 

When,  as  in  the  traditional  poet,  the  wisdom  and  expression 
of  the  past  are  both  a  basic  part  of  the  individual,  when  they  are 
at  once  taken  casually  for  granted  and  thoroughly  understood, 
the  individual  contribution  to  the  poem  can  be  made  with  force 
and  precision.  But  if  the  combiner  of  two  elements  understands 
only  one  of  them,  the  combination  will  hardly  be  satisfactory; 
and  in  this  instance  it  is  unlikely  that  the  comprehension  of  only 
one  clement  is  possible:  it  is  both  or  nothing.  A  purely  literary 
poet  can  very  likely  never  exist;  the  literary  quality  rather  in- 
vades the  work  in  a  greater  or  smaller  measure.  Swinburne  is 
one  of  the  best  examples  I  know  of  a  poet  of  a  fairly  high  order 
of  talent  whose  work  is  pretty  evenly  corrupted  by  "literary" 
habits.  Mr.  T.  S.  Eliot's  essay  on  Swinburne  defines  the  quality 
admirably.  Symons,  Wilde,  and  Dowson  carry  farther  what  Swin- 
burne began:  their  poetry  is  almost  devoid  of  meaning. 

As  one  approaches  a  norm,  one's  variations  from  that  norm 
take  on  more  significance.  If  the  convention  of  a  poem  is  badly 
defined,  the  poetry  is  vague.  This  is  one  of  the  many  things 
wrong  with  most  of  Shelley,  Byron,  Hugo,  De  Musset,  Lamar- 
tinc,  and  the  other  typical  romantics.  The  same  weakness  inheres 
in  some  measure  in  Swinburne,  though  Swinburne's  vagueness 
is  commonly  of  a  more  consistent  quality. 

The  "literary,"  of  course,  is  what  commonly  appears  tradi- 
tional to  the  popular  and  even  the  academic  taste:  Swinburne  is 
preferred  to  Landor,  and  Housman  to  Bridges.  The  traditional 
is  ordinarily  thrust  aside  as  merely  literary;  or  else,  in  such  poets 
as  Crashaw  or  Williams,  it  is  completely  overlooked  because  the 
reader  is  nonplussed  by  experimental  elements.  We  have  noth- 
ing but  Arnold's  touchstones  to  guide  us  in  this  difficulty,  and 
our  own  hard  work  to  make  us  worthy  of  guidance;  that,  and  the 
Grace  of  God.  It  is  an  obscure  procedure,  but  Landor  is  surely 
greater  than  Swinburne  and  Bridges  than  Housman. 

IV.  Pseudo-experimental  poetry  is  the  work  of  a  poet  who  con- 
fuses tradition  with  convention,  and  who,  desiring  to  experi- 
ment, sees  no  way  to  escape  from  or  alter  tradition  save  by  the 
abandonment  of  convention:  it  means  the  abandonment  of  form 
and  of  poetry.  Mr.  E.  E.  Cummings  is  a  good  example  of  this 
type  of  poet.  When  Mr.  Cummings  ceases  to  experiment,  and 
essays  the  traditional,  he  becomes  painfully  literary.  Either  way 
he  shows  little  comprehension  of  poetry. 

To  what  extent  can  the  principles  herein  defined  be  brought 
to  the  defense  of  the  methods  employed  by  the  experimental 
poets  of  twentieth  century  America  and  of  the  French  Symbolist 
School,  methods  to  which  I  have  elsewhere  objected?  Any  an- 
swer must  be  prefaced  with  the  warning  that  what  is  true  of  one 
type  of  convention  need  not  be  true  of  another.  What  is  true 
even  of  one  sub-type  need  not  be  true  of  another  sub-type  of  the 
same  group:  consider,  for  example,  the  number  and  variety  of 
the  forms  of  pseudo-reference. 

The  convention  of  heightened  intensity  is  sound  procedure  in 
Williams'  poem  On  the  road  to  the  contagious  hospital,  which  I 
have  discussed  at  length,  because  there  is  poetic  justification,  a 
genuine  motivation,  for  the  conventional  language,  and  the  con- 
ventional language  is  graduated  to  the  wholly  poetic  with  great 
skill  and  energy.  Were  there  no  such  justification,  however,  the 
poem  would  belong,  with  many  of  H.  D/s  poems  on  Greek  land- 
scape, in  the  class  of  implicit  reference  to  a  non-existent  symbolic 
value.  Much  of  Wordsworth's  more  or  less  Miltonic  grandilo- 
quence belongs  in  the  same  class:  the  grandeur  never  emerges  or 
emerges  too  seldom.  Bryant  is  sometimes  similar,  when  he  applies 
a  tone  of  moral  grandeur  to  material  that  is  purely  physical  and 
unable  to  support  such  a  tone. 

The  pseudo-reference  of  T.  S.  Eliot's  Gerontion)  partly  a  mat- 
ter of  reference  to  non-existent  plots,  partly  a  matter  of  purely 
grammatical  logic,  seems  in  some  ways  to  resemble  the  height- 
ened intensity  employed  by  Dr.  Williams  in  On  the  road  to  the 
contagious  hospital.  That  is,  while  Dr.  Williams,  in  certain  pas- 
sages, assumes  more  feeling  than  he  perceives,  Mr.  Eliot,  in  cer- 


tain  passages,  assumes  more  reasonableness  than  he  perceives. 
Dr.  Williams  works  up  to  passages  in  which  his  claims  are  sup- 
ported by  perception;  so  does  Mr.  Eliot;  and  in  each  poem  these 
passages  represent  the  core  of  the  poem,  not  only  as  regards  feel- 
ing, but  as  regards  rational  theme.  The  climax  of  Mr.  Eliot's 
poem,  the  passage  beginning:  "I  that  was  near  your  heart  was 
removed  therefrom,"  justly  one  of  the  most  famous  passages  in 
recent  poetry,  is  probably  greater  than  anything  in  the  poem  by 
Dr.  Williams,  though  perhaps  not  so  much  greater  as  Mr.  Eliot's 
admirers  (who  commonly  fail  to  understand  Dr.  Williams  alto- 
gether) might  be  ready  to  believe. 

On  the  other  hand,  Dr.  Williams'  poem  is  far  more  solidly 
written.  The  fine  passages  in  Gerontion,  though  frequently  of  a 
magnificent  precision  in  themselves,  arise  from  a  mass  of  care- 
fully veiled  imprecisions,  which,  on  first  glance,  appear  to  have 
more  meaning  than  they  really  have.  The  success  of  conven- 
tional language  of  this  kind  depends  very  largely  on  the  reader's 
being  more  or  less  deluded:  the  procedure  in  Dr.  Williams'  poem 
is  at  once  more  in  the  open  and  more  definite,  and  one  knows 
what  is  happening  at  every  instant.  There  are  moments  in  Mr. 
Eliot's  poem  at  which  no  one  can  be  really  sure  of  what  is  going 
on,  and  as  a  result  one  feels,  or  I  cannot  escape  feeling,  a  degree 
of  uncertainty  in  the  very  essence  of  the  poem.  One  has  again, 
perhaps,  the  fallacy  of  imitative  form:  the  attempt  to  express  a 
state  of  uncertainty  by  uncertainty  of  expression;  whereas  the 
sound  procedure  would  be  to  make  a  lucid  and  controlled  state- 
ment regarding  the  condition  of  uncertainty,  a  procedure,  how- 
ever, which  would  require  that  the  poet  understand  the  nature 
of  uncertainty,  not  that  he  be  uncertain.  Gerontion,  at  any  rate, 
is  the  most  skillful  modern  poem  in  English  to  employ  any  large 
measure  of  pseudo-reference;  the  superiority  of  its  pseudo-refer- 
ence to  most  of  that  of  Crane  and  of  Yeats  probably  derives  from 
the  fact  that  it  is  deliberate,  whereas  theirs  is  commonly  in  a 
large  part  unintentional— in  Gerontion  it  is  mystification  instead 
of  confusion,  or  at  least  is  employed  willfully  and  deliberately  as 
a  means  of  bringing  certain  recognized,  and,  for  the  author,  irre- 
ducible confusion,  under  a  little  control. 

To  cite  another  example  of  pseudo-reference,  Hart  Crane's 
poem  The  Dance  reverses  the  order  of  conventional  and  poetic 
language  employed  by  Williams.  That  is,  Williams'  language  is 
largely  conventional  in  the  early  part  of  the  poem,  and  then  takes 
on  poetic  fullness  at  the  climax.  Crane's  poem,  on  the  other 
hand,  displays  most  of  its  fully  poetic  content  (the  purely  but 
brilliantly  descriptive  writing)  scattered  through  the  first  half, 
approximately,  of  the  poem,  and  then  breaks  into  a  complete  dis- 
junction of  feeling  and  meaning  at  the  climax. 

The  purely  grammatical  logic  of  much  of  Faustus  and  Helen, 
parts  I  and  III,  might  be  in  a  measure  defensible  on  the  same 
grounds  as  the  pseudo-reference  of  Gerontion,  or  to  the  same  ex- 
tent, except  that  there  is  a  much  greater  proportion  of  pseudo- 
reference  in  the  poem  by  Crane  and  that  there  is  much  less  clar- 
ity as  to  the  general  theme,  so  that  the  moments  of  coherence  arc 
never  sufficient  to  give  any  perceptible  support  to  the  conglom- 
eration of  conventional  language. 

But  we  may  probably  say  for  any  kind  of  pseudo-reference 
that  it  goes  through  the  forms  of  reasonable  statement  and  hence 
may  be  a  preparation  for  reasonable  statement,  or  a  stop-gap  be- 
tween passages  of  reasonable  statement,  and  that,  if  it  does  not 
occur  in  great  excess  and  is  distributed  in  small  enough  bits,  if, 
in  short,  it  is  not  too  obtrusive  and  is  not  too  seriously  involved 
in  the  very  conception  of  the  poem,  it  may  do  relatively  little 
harm  and  so  be  accepted  at  times  as  an  apparently  inevitable  evil. 

Laforguian  irony,  however,  is  not  a  preparation  for  anything 
else,  is  not  an  unfulfilled  form,  but  is  merely  a  slipshod  attitude, 
final  in  itself,  and  invariably  a  vice  of  feeling.  Qualitative  pro- 
gression, likewise,  is  not  a  preparation  for  anything  else;  it  offers 
no  unfulfilled  claims  or  half-utilized  machinery.  If  it  is  central  to 
the  structure  of  the  work— that  is,  if  the  theme  is  really  unformu- 
lable  and  merely  a  mood— it  is  a  vice  for  the  reasons  which  I  have 
given  elsewhere.  It  is  legitimate  only  when  used  occasionally  and 
in  an  impure  way,  as  Mr.  Burke  has  shown  it  in  use  on  the  pe- 
riphery of  Hamlet. 

We  may  say  in  general,  then,  that  some  kinds  of  experimental 
convention  are  more  dangerous  than  others,  and  the  more  recent 

types  appear  to  be  the  most  dangerous,  perhaps  because  they  have 
been  used  more  boldly— or  rather,  more  rashly— than  experi- 
mental conventions  have  ever  been  used  before.  Secondly  and 
finally,  traditional  poetry  is  the  most  economically  and  firmly 
constructed  variety  possible.  To  see  this,  one  has  only  to  compare 
Bridges'  The  southwind  strengthens  to  a  gale  to  Gerontion  or  to 
The  Dance. 


THE  DICHOTOMY  of  major  and  minor  poetry  is  obviously  unsatis- 
factory, nor  is  the  reason  for  this  the  one  so  often  given,  that  gen- 
eral descriptive  terms  have  no  meaning.  They  can  at  least  be 
given  meaning.  If  Ben  Jonson  is  a  major  poet  and  Campion  a 
minor  poet,  it  is  patently  outrageous  to  apply  either  epithet  to 
Byron;  yet  Byron  for  the  present  has  a  place  in  our  literature, 
and,  though  it  seems  incredible  that  he  should  be  read  as  long  as 
Jonson  or  as  Campion,  it  is  probable  that  he  will  be  read  for  a 
long  time.  Of  Jonson  and  Campion  we  may  say  that  both  are 
masters;  few  men  have  lived  to  write  as  well;  it  is  unlikely  that 
many  men  have  lived  to  appreciate  them  fully.  Their  difference 
is  mainly  a  difference  of  scope;  the  achievement  of  Campion  can- 
not be  dimmed  by  comparison  with  the  achievement  of  the  great- 
est poets,  for  within  its  scope  it  is  unimpeachable.  The  achieve- 
ment of  Byron,  on  the  other  hand,  suffers  by  comparison  with 
the  work  of  any  of  the  minor  masters,  even  with  that  of  Googe  or 
Turberville;  in  a  superficial  sense  he  attempted  as  much  as  did 
Jonson,  but  he  understood  with  precision  nothing  that  he 
touched,  and  his  art  he  understood  least  of  all. 

The  more  important  poets  might  be  placed  in  four  groups :  the 
second-rate,  those  whose  gift  for  language  is  inadequate  to  their 
task,  poets  such  as  Byron,  D.  H.  Lawrence,  or  Poe,  and  regard- 
less of  their  other  virtues  or  failings;  the  major,  those  who  possess 
all  of  the  virtues,  both  of  form  and  of  range;  the  primitive,  those 
who  utilize  all  of  the  means  necessary  to  the  most  vigorous  form, 
but  whose  range  of  material  is  limited;  and  the  decadent,  those 
who  display  a  fine  sensitivity  to  language  and  who  may  have  a 

very  wide  scope,  but  whose  work  is  incomplete  formally  (in  the 
manner  of  the  pseudo-referent  and  qualitative  poets)  or  is  some- 
what but  not  too  seriously  weakened  by  a  vice  of  feeling  (in  the 
manner  of  the  better  post-romantic  ironists).  The  second  type 
of  decadent  poets  may  differ  from  the  second-rate  only  in  degree 
of  weakness.  In  this  essay  I  shall  endeavor  to  discover  some  of  the 
implications  of  the  terms  decadent  and  primitive  as  used  in  this 
way.  The  nature  of  major  poetry  and  of  the  second-rate  should 
be  reasonably  obvious,  even  though  there  might  be  disagreement 
over  examples. 

It  will  be  seen  that  most  experimental  poetry,  particularly  ex- 
perimental poetry  of  the  types  developed  in  the  late  nineteenth 
and  early  twentieth  centuries,  appears  to  issue  either  in  primi- 
tivism  or  in  decadence,  if  it  issues  in  nothing  worse.  The  term 
primitivism,  however,  may  be  allowed  to  include  traditional 
minor  poetry  as  well. 

If  we  compare  The  Dance,  by  Hart  Crane,  to  one  of  the  better 
poems  of  Jonson  or  of  George  Herbert,  it  is  decadent  in  the  sense 
in  which  I  have  just  defined  the  term:  it  is  incomplete  poetry. 
Historically,  however,  Crane's  poetry  is  related  not  only  to  Jon- 
son,  but  to  the  romantics,  especially  to  Whitman,  much  of  whose 
doctrine  Crane  adopts.  Whitman's  doctrine  is  illusory:  like  all  of 
the  anti-rational  doctrines  of  the  past  two  centuries,  it  vanishes  if 
pursued  by  definition.  Whitman,  as  a  second-rate  poet,  however, 
was  equipped  to  write  of  it,  after  a  fashion,  without  rendering  its 
nature  immediately  evident.  His  poetic  language  was  as  vague  as 
his  expository;  he  had  no  capacity  for  any  feeling  save  of  the 
cloudiest  and  most  general  kind.  Crane's  poetic  gift  is  finer  than 
Whitman's,  and  the  precision  of  his  language  forces  one  to  recog- 
nize the  inadequacy  of  his  reference.  If  he  is  decadent  in  com- 
parison to  Jonson,  he  yet  marks  an  advance  in  relationship  to 
Whitman.  It  would  probably  be  easier  to  convince  most  readers 
at  present  that  something  is  wrong  with  Crane  than  that  some- 
thing is  wrong  with  Whitman.  The  reason  for  this  is  simple:  one 
observes  rather  quickly  that  something  is  wrong  with  Crane,  be- 
cause something  is  right,  and  one  is  thus  able  to  get  one's  bear- 
ings. From  one  point  of  view  his  language  is  frequently  that  of  a 


master.  Nowhere  in  Whitman  can  one  find  such  splendor  or 
even  such  precision  of  language  as  in  The  Dance  or  as  in  The 
River.  And  if  one  proceeds  from  these  to  his  most  finished  per- 
formances, Repose  of  Rivers?  Faustus  and  Helen  II,  and  Voyages 
II,  one  has  poems  in  which  the  trace  of  decadence  is  scarcely  dis- 
cernible.1 It  would  not  have  been  impossible,  then,  for  Crane  to 
decrease  the  amount  of  pseudo-reference  in  his  poems;  as  a  deca- 
dent poet,  he  was  not  bound  to  deteriorate;  nor  does  his  poetry 
indicate  that  contemporary  literature  is  in  a  state  of  deterioration. 
Mr.  Pound's  Cantos  are  decadent  in  relation  to  Paradise  Lost, 
since  their  structure  is  purely  qualitative.  But,  historically,  there 
is  probably  another  relationship  to  Whitman  here,  in  which  Mr. 
Pound  shows  not  decay  but  growth.  It  is  not  a  relationship  of 

1  Of  Repose  of  Rivers  one  may  say  that  the  individual  images  are  miraculous, 
but  that  their  order  is  not  invariably  necessary;  this  fact,  combined  with  the 
lack  of  rhythmical  conviction  as  the  poet  proceeds  from  one  image  to  the  next, 
results  in  a  frail,  almost  tentative  structure.  Faiistus  and  Helen  II  is  purely 
descriptive  and  hence  offers  no  temptations  to  sin;  the  fantastic  subject  matter, 
combined  with  the  relative  safety  of  the  approach,  enabled  Crane  to  utilize  his 
entire  talent%'for  rhetorical  ingenuity  without  risk  of  its  betraying  him.  In 
Voyages  II,  which  seems  to  me  his  greatest  poem,  'he  disciplined  this  talent  to 
meet  a  more  dangerous  and  exacting  theme,  and  achieved  greater  solidity  than 
in  Repose  of  Rivers. 

It  will  be  observed  that  my  selections  do  not  coincide  with  those  of  Mr. 
Allen  Tate.  Mr.  Tate  speaks  of  The  River  as  Crane's  "most  complex  and  sus- 
tained performance,  a  masterpiece  of  aesthetic  form,"  and  of  Praise  for  an  Urn 
as  "the  finest  elegy  in  American  poetry"  (Hound  and  Horn:  Summer,  1932). 
This  seems  to  me  sheer  nonsense.  The  latter  poem  is  metrically  a  very  stiff  and 
inexpert  free  verse;  except  for  the  two  striking  lines  about  the  clock  and  half  a 
dozen  other  passable  lines,  it  is  sentimental  and  affected.  "The  slant  moon  on 
the  slanting  hill,"  "Delicate  riders  of  the  storm,"  "The  everlasting  eyes  of 
Pierrot/  and  of  Gargantua  the  laughter,"  are  sentimental  cliches  of  the  twenties, 
and  their  quality  pervades  the  whole  poem.  As  to  The  River,  it  is  as  ineptly  put 
together  as  any  romantic  poem  I  have  read:  the  poem  should  begin  with  the 
passage  about  the  cannery  works,  and  everything  previous  should  be  discarded; 
about  half  the  lines  from  the  cannery  works  to  the  Pullman  breakfasters  should 
be  revised,  the  eyeless  fish,  the  old  gods  of  the  rain,  and  much  of  the  rest  of  it 
being  the  shoddiest  of  decoration,  not  even  skillful  charlatanry;  and  in  the  last 
part  of  the  poem,  which  is  the  finest  and  which  is  very  powerful,  there  are  still 
bad  lines,  tor  examples,  "Throb  past  the  city  storied  of  three  thrones,"  "All 
fades  but  one  thin  skyline  'round.  .  .  .  Ahead,"  and  the  two  final  lines  of  the 
poem:  The  defects  of  The  River  are  not  due  to  the  theme,  but  merely  to  care- 
•  lessness,  and  could  easily  have  been  revised  away.  The  pantheism  which  wrecks 
The  Dance  appears  in  The  River  in  a  fairly  harmless  form,  and  merely  lends 
pathos  to  certain  lines,  particularly  to  those  describing  the  end  of  Dan  Midland. 


theme,  as  in  Crane's  poetry,  but  one  of  form.  Mr.  Pound's  long 
line  is  in  part  a  refinement  of  Whitman's  line;  his  progression 
from  image  to  image  resembles  Whitman's  in  everything  save 
Whitman's  lack  of  skill.  The  Cantos  are  structurally  Whitma- 
nian  songs,  dealing  with  non-Whitmanian  matter,  and  displaying 
at  their  best  great  suavity  and  beauty.  As  Crane  shifts  out  of 
pseudo-reference  into  rational  reference  in  Voyages  II,  so  Mr. 
Pound  in  his  versions  of  Propertius,  using  the  same  form  as  in 
the  Cantos,  produces  coherent  comment  on  formulable  themes, 
or  does  so  part  of  the  time.  The  change  may  be  due  to  the  genius 
of  Propertius,  but  it  is  possible  in  Mr.  Pound's  form.  The  form, 
however,  would  not  permit  of  any  very  rapid  or  compact  reason- 

I  have  elsewhere  suggested  that  post-romantic  irony  represents 
an  advance  over  the  uncritical  emotionalism  of  such  poets  as 
Hugo  or  Shelley,  in  so  far  as  it  represents  the  first  step  in  a  diag- 

The  primitive  poet  is  the  major  poet  on  a  smaller  scale.  The 
decadent  poet  is  the  major,  or  primitive,  poet  with  some  impor- 
tant faculty  absent  from  the  texture  of  all  his  work.  Dr.  Williams 
is  a  good  example  of  the  type  of  poet  whom  I  should  call  the 
contemporary  primitive.  His  best  poems  display  no  trace  of  the 
formal  inadequacies  which  I  have  mentioned  as  the  signs  of 
decadence.  Such  poems  as  The  Widow's  Lament  or  To  Waken 
an  Old  Lady  are  fully  realized;  the  form  is  complete  and  perfect; 
the  feeling  is  sound.  Dr.  Williams  has  a  surer  feeling  for  lan- 
guage than  any  other  poet  of  his  generation,  save,  perhaps, 
Stevens  at  his  best.  But  he  is  wholly  incapable  of  coherent 
thought  and  he  had  not  the  good  fortune  to  receive  a  coherent 
system  as  his  birthright.  His  expository  writing  is  largely  incom- 
prehensible; his  novel,  A  Voyage  to  Pagany,  displays  an  almost 
ludicrous  inability  to  motivate  a  long  narrative.  His  experience 
is  disconnected  and  fragmentary,  but  sometimes  a  fragment  is 
wrought  to  great  beauty.  His  widest  range  has  been  reached  in  a 
single  piece  of  prose,  The  Destruction  of  Tenochtitlan,  in  which 
he  found  his  material  more  or  less  ready  for  treatment  in  the 


form  of  history:  in  treating  it,  he  achieved  one  of  the  few  great 
prose  styles  of  our  time.2 

Dr.  Williams  bears  a  certain  resemblance  to  the  best  lyric  poets 
of  the  thirteenth  century:  there  is  in  both  an  extreme  sophistica- 
tion of  style,  a  naive  limitation  of  theme  (Dr.  Williams  has  a 
wider  range  than  the  early  poets,  however)  and  a  fresh  enthusi- 
asm for  the  theme.  It  was  out  of  such  poetry  as  Alisoun  that 
English  poetry  little  by  little  grew.  Sidney  represents  a  resurgence 
of  the  same  quality  at  a  later  date,  but  touched  with  Petrarchan 
decadence.3  Decadent  poetry,  as  I  have  defined  it,  would  have 
been  impossible  in  thirteenth  century  England:  it  requires  a  ma- 
ture poetry  as  a  background. 

A  decadent  poet  such  as  Crane  may,  as  I  have  said,  if  consid- 
ered historically,  represent  a  gain  and  not  a  loss.  As  a  matter  of 
fact,  he  may  embody  the  most  economical  method  of  recovery 
for  an  old  and  rich  tradition  in  a  state  of  collapse,  for  he  offers 
all  of  the  machinery  of  a  mature  and  complicated  poetry.  Both 
decadent  and  primitive  lack  an  understanding  and  correlation  of 
their  experience:  the  primitive  accepts  his  limitations  through 
wisdom  or  ignorance;  the  decadent  endeavors  to  conceal  them, 
or,  like  some  primitives,  may  never  discover  them;  the  primitive, 
however,  treats  of  what  he  understands  and  the  decadent  of  more 
than  he  understands.  For  either  to  achieve  major  poetry  there  is 
necessary  an  intellectual  clarification  of  some  kind.  But  to  attain 
major  poetry  from  the  position  of  a  primitive  poet  such  as  Dr. 
Williams  might  necessitate  the  creation  of  a  good  deal  of  techni- 
cal machinery  as  well;  whereas  the  pseudo-referent  poet  has  most 
of  his  machinery  made  and  already  partly  in  action. 

*  In  connection  with  the  fragmentariness,  the  primitivism,  of  this  piece,  it  is 
worth  noting  that  the  rhetoric,  perhaps  merely  because  of  the  perfection  to 
which  it  raises  traditional  heroic  prose,  resembles  closely  that  or  Macaulay's 
History,  the  passage  in  Macaulay  describing  the  formation  and  character  of 
Cromwell's  army,  offering  especially  striking  similarity.  Macaulay  chose  to  write 
a  five  volume  work,  one  of  the  supreme  English  masterpieces,  in  this  style.  Dr. 
Williams  happened  to  write  a  twelve-page  masterpiece  in  the  style,  or  so  one  is 
forced  to  conclude  from  the  quality  of  most  of  his  prose. 

'In  connection  with  this  statement  and  others  regarding  the  lyrics  of  the 
sixteenth  century,  see  my  review  of  the  Oxford  Book  of  16th  Century  Verse, 
edited  by  E.  K.  Chambers,  in  the  Hound  and  Horn,  Volume  VI,  Number  4. 


There  is  probably  the  same  relationship  between  the  Pe- 
trarchan rhetoric  of  the  sixteenth  century,  with  its  decorative  and 
more  or  less  pseudo-referent  conceit,  and  the  best  Metaphysical 
verse  of  the  seventeenth  century.  In  Shakespeare's  sonnets  the 
rhetoric  is  Petrarchan,  yet  the  Petrarchan  conceit  is  given  a 
weight  of  meaning  new  to  it;  something  similar  occurs  in  the 
poetry  of  Fulke  Greville.  The  gap  between  the  sonnets  of  Shake- 
speare and  the  sonnets  of  Donne  is  not  extremely  great.  Yet  the 
best  thirteenth  century  lyrics,  like  the  best  early  Tudor  lyrics, 
those  by  such  men  as  Vaux,  Googe,  Gascoigne,  and  Turberville, 
are  better  poetry  than  the  work  of  Daniel  or  of  Dray  ton,  in  spite 
of  the  fact  that  they  would  have  been  less  immediately  useful  in 
certain  ways  to  Donne.  So  with  our  contemporaries:  Dr.  Williams 
is  more  consistently  excellent  than  Crane,  and  at  his  best  is  pos- 
sibly better.  Crane's  machinery,  convenient  as  it  might  at  any 
moment  prove,  remains,  so  long  as  it  is  not  utilized,  a  source  of 

The  decadent  poetry  of  Mr.  Pound  does  not  appear  to  me  to 
provide  so  many  opportunities  for  filling  out  as  does  that  of 
Crane,  partly  because  of  the  meter,  which  presents  a  problem  too 
elaborate  in  itself  for  discussion  here,  and  partly  because  all,  or 
nearly  all,  superfluous  machinery  in  the  way  of  pseudo-referent 
forms  has  been  avoided.  That  is,  the  difficulty  of  extending  the 
usefulness  of  a  convention  may  often  bear  a  direct  relationship  to 
the  perfection  with  which  the  convention  accomplishes  the  aims 
for  which  it  was  created. 

A  perfect  primitive  poet  is  not  of  necessity  better  than  a  deca- 
dent poet,  though  he  may  be;  in  fact  a  decadent  poet  may  seem  of 
greater  value  than  a  poet  whom  one  might  call  major.  Some 
major  poets  are  greater  than  others,  and  a  poem  by  Mr.  Stevens, 
technically  decadent  because  tinged  with  his  vice— Of  the  Man- 
ner of  Addressing  Clouds,  for  example— may  suffer  extremely 
little  from  its  decadence  and  be  in  other  respects  a  poem  of  tre- 
mendous power. 

The  poetry  of  Mr.  Paul  Val6ry  demonstrates  that  decadence 
may  be  a  very  economical  mode  of  recovery.  Mr.  Val6ry  was 


formed  in  the  influence  of  the  Symbolists,  poets  decadent,  fre- 
quently, in  the  same  way  as  the  Americans  of  the  second  and 
third  decades  of  the  twentieth  century.  The  poet  who  illustrates 
this  point  more  clearly  than  any  other  in  English  is  Mr.  T.  Sturge 
Moore,  who  shares  in  a  considerable  measure  the  background  of 
Mr.  Val<§ry. 

Mr.  J.  V.  Cunningham,  in  the  Commonweal  for  July  27,  1932, 
describes  Mr.  Moore's  favorite  theme  as  that  "spiritual  pride 
which  would  overreach  natural  limits  ...  the  effort  to  violate 
human  relationships  by  imposing  one's  identity  on  others,"  to- 
gether with  criticism  of  such  spiritual  pride.  Mr.  Cunningham 
cites  the  excellent  poem  On  Four  Poplars  as  an  instance  of  the 
subject  matter,  and  other  poems  could  be  cited.  The  theme,  how- 
ever, is  not  limited  to  the  ethical  sphere  in  Mr.  Moore,  but  has 
its  religious  counterpart,  in  a  mysticism  related  to  that  of  poets  so 
diverse  as  Hart  Crane  and  Robinson  Jeffers,  which  leads  to  the 
attempt  to  violate  our  relationship  with  God,  or  with  whatever 
myth  we  put  in  his  place,  even  with  Nothingness,  and  which 
leads  concurrently  to  the  minimizing  of  moral  distinctions,  that 
is,  of  the  careful  perception  of  strictly  human  experience.  Mr. 
Moore  differs  from  the  Romantic  mystics  in  defining  this  tempta- 
tion without  succumbing;  in  defining  not  only  the  temptation 
but  its  legitimate  uses,  and  its  dangers.  His  repeated  poems  on 
the  subject  of  Silence,  and  his  repeated  references  to  Semele,  are 
among  the  more  obvious  indications  of  his  interest  in  the  subject. 
His  great  lyric  To  Silence  may  be  taken  as  an  allegorical  sum- 
mary of  this  theme  and  of  his  own  relationship  to  romantic  tradi- 
tion, the  tradition  of  rejuvenation  through  immersion  in  pure 
feeling,  or  sensation,  the  immersion  which  is  the  mystical  com- 
munion of  the  romantic,  and  which  occurs  in  its  most  perfect 
literary  examples  among  the  devotees  of  imitative  form  to  be 
found  in  the  French  Symbolist  and  American  Experimental 

Mr,  Moore's  immersion  has  actually  led  to  rejuvenation,  to  an 
inexhaustibly  fascinating  freshness  of  perception :  the  immersion 
of  other  poets  has  too  often  led  to  disintegration.  I  quote  the 
entire  text  of  the  poem  To  Silence: 

O  deep  and  clear  as  is  the  sky, 

A  soul  is  as  a  bird  in  thee 

That  travels  on  and  on;  so  I, 

Like  a  snared  linnet>  now  break  free, 

Who  sought  thee  once  with  leisured  grace 

As  hale  youth  seeks  the  sea's  warm  bays. 

And  as  a  floating  nereid  sleeps 

In  the  deep-billowed  ocean-stream; 

And  by  some  goat-herd  on  lone  rock 

Is  thought  a  corpse,  though  she  may  dream 

And  profit  by  both  health  and  ease 

Nursed  on  those  high  green  rolling  seas,— 

Long  once  1  drifted  in  thy  tide, 

Appearing  dead  to  those  I  passed; 

Yet  lived  in  thee,  and  dreamed,  and  waked 

Twice  what  I  had  been.  Now,  I  cast 

Me  broken  on  thy  buoyant  deep 

And  dreamless  in  thy  calm  would  sleep. 

Silence,  1  almost  now  believe 
Thou  art  the  speech  on  lips  divine, 
Their  greatest  kindness  to  their  child. 
Yet  1,  who  for  all  wisdom  pine. 
Seek  thee  but  as  a  bather  swims 
To  refresh  and  not  dissolve  his  limbs:— 

Though  these  be  thine,  who  asked  and  had, 
And  asked  and  had  again,  again, 
Yet  always  found  they  wanted  more 
Till  craving  grew  to  be  a  pain; 
And  they  at  last  to  silence  fled, 
Glad  to  lose  all  for  which  they  pled. 

O  pure  and  wide  as  is  the  sky 
Heal  me,  yet  give  me  back  to  life/ 


Though  thou  foresee  the  day  when  I, 
Sated  with  failure,  dead  to  strife, 
Shall  seek  in  thee  my  beings  end, 
Still  be  to  my  fond  hope  a  friend. 

The  structure  of  the  poem  is  logical  and  the  reference  is  exact, 
but  the  feeling  is  very  strange.  There  is  a  remarkable  freshness  of 
sensitivity,  yet  it  is  a  different  freshness  from  that  of  a  primitive, 
such  as  Dr.  Williams.  It  might  almost  be  characterized  as  the 
hypersensitivity  of  convalescence:  the  poet  is  minutely  sensitive 
to  dangers  and  meanings  past  but  imminent,  to  which  Dr.  Wil- 
liams is  not  only  insensitive  but  of  the  very  existence  of  which  he 
is  unaware. 

If  we  can  imagine  that  human  experience  is  portrayable  geo- 
metrically as  a  continuous  circle  on  which  there  are  equally 
spaced  points,  A,  C,  E,  and  G,  and  that  classical  poetry  has  been 
written  with  these  as  its  chief  points  of  reference,  we  can  then 
imagine  a  breakdown,  a  period  of  confusion,  in  which  these 
points  are  lost,  but  after  which  a  new  set  of  points,  B,  D,  F,  and 
H,  also  spaced  equally  but  not  the  same  points,  are  established. 
These  new  points  would  give  a  comparable  balance,  or  intelli- 
gence, perhaps,  but  an  altered  view  of  the  detail,  that  is,  an 
altered  quality  of  perception,  of  feeling.  Or  it  might  be  that  the 
old  points  would  merely  be  regained  after  the  breakdown,  the 
quality  of  the  perception  being  then  affected  by  the  past  experi- 
ence of  the  breakdown. 

It  is  as  if  we  extended  the  allegory  of  the  poem  just  quoted, 
thus:  Silence  is  equal  to  pure  quality,  unclassified  sensation  (a 
purely  hypothetical  infinity,  which,  however,  we  can  approach 
indefinitely),4  and  the  immersion  in  sensation  (or  confusion) 

*Cf.  Morris  Cohen,  Reason  and  Nature,  page  37:  "Avenarius  wishes  to 
purify  our  world-view  by  returning  to  the  natural  view  of  experience  as  it 
existed  before  it  was  vitiated  by  the  sophistications  of  thought  On  the  form  of 
introjection).  But  the  empiricist's  uncritical  use  of  the  category  of  the  given, 
and  the  nominalistic  dogma  that  relations  are  created  rather  than  discovered  by 
thought,  lead  Avenarius  to  banish  not  only  animism  and  other  myths,  but  also 
the  categories,  substance,  causality,  etc.,  as  inventions  of  the  mind.  In  doing 
this  he  runs  afoul  of  the  great  insight  of  Kant  that  without  concepts  or  cate- 
gories percepts  are  blind."  Also  Allen  Tate,  The  Fallacy  of  Humanism,  in  The 

amounts  to  the  dissolution  of  one's  previous  standards  in  order 
to  obtain  a  fresh  sensibility.  This  is  what  the  romantic  movement 
amounted  to,  the  degree  of  dissolution  varying  with  each  poet, 
regardless  of  whether  the  dissolution  was  necessary.  Mr.  Moore 
states  explicitly,  however,  in  this  poem  and  in  others,  not  only 
the  value  of  the  immersion,  but  its  peril,  and  the  need  of  the 
return.  This  does  not  mean  that  Mr.  Moore  at  any  point  in  his 
career  has  performed  experiments  like  those  of  Rimbaud  or  of 
Joyce;  he  has  not  done  so  publicly,  and  there  is  no  reason  to  sup- 
pose that  he  has  done  so  privately.  But  his  sensibility  was  pro- 
foundly affected  by  those  who  did  perform  them;  he  is  a  part  of 
the  tradition  that  had  at  an  earlier  point  in  its  history  subjected 
itself  to  the  immersion;  his  private  history  as  a  poet  begins  at  the 
point  in  the  history  of  the  tradition  at  which  recovery  has  begun, 
and  his  talents  enable  him  to  bring  that  recovery  to  its  highest 
pitch  of  development;  but  he  remembers  and  understands  what 
preceded  him,  and  his  sensibility  bears  witness  to  the  fact.  He 
thus  resembles  Paul  Val^ry,  though  of  the  two  poets  his  relation- 
ship to  the  Symbolist  tradition  is  perhaps  the  more  obvious.  The 
feeling  of  strangeness  and  freshness  is  still  upon  Mr.  Moore's 
poetry,  as  upon  one  who  has  just  emerged  from  the  sea.  One 
should  examine  in  particular  the  following  poems:  To  Silence, 
To  Slow  Music,  From  Titian  s  Bacchanal,  the  first  half  of  the 
double  sonnet  Silence,  Love's  First  Communion,  An  Aged 
Beauty's  Prayer,  The  Deeper  Desire,  the  sonnets  on  Sappho, 
Semele,  lo,  Suggested  by  the  Representation  on  a  Grecian  Am- 
phora, The  Song  of  Chiron,  Tragic  Fates,  To  a  Child  Listening 
to  a  Repeater,  and,  among  his  longer  works,  Daimonassa  (per- 
haps his  greatest  single  achievement),  Mariamne,  The  Sea  Is 
Kind,  The  Centaurs  Booty,  and  The  Rout  of  the  Amazons. 

The  term  decadence  is  frequently  used  to  denote  or  connote 
personal  immorality,  yet  even  in  this  sense  the  historical  defense 
is  sometimes  effective.  There  is  no  doubt  that  Verlaine  was  per- 

Critique  of  Humanism  (Brewer  and  Warren:  1930):  "Pure  Quality  is  nature 
itself  because  it  is  the  source  of  experience.  .  .  .  Pure  Quality  would  be  pure 
evil,  and  it  is  only  through  the  means  of  our  recovery  from  a  lasting  immersion 
in  it  ...  that  any  man  survives  the  present  hour;  Pure  Quality  is  pure  dis- 


sonally  childish,  sentimental,  and  debauched.  He  was  in  some 
ways  one  of  the  most  muddled  souls  of  a  muddled  century:  his 
life  was  pseudo-referent  even  though  his  poetry  was  frequently 
not,  and,  like  his  poetry,  was  too  often  governed  wholly  by  mood. 
He  was  not,  as  Baudelaire  was,  morally  intelligent  among  what- 
ever sins  he  may  have  committed,  and  was  never  much  the  wiser 
for  his  sins  or  wrote  better  poetry  because  of  them.  The  greater 
part  of  his  life  was  simply  confusion;  yet  a  narrow  margin  of  it 
he  evaluated  with  precision;  to  that  extent  he  was  superior  to 
such  formless  predecessors  as  Lamartine  or  de  Musset,  who 
smeared  everything  with  a  consistent  texture  of  falsity.  As  a  poet, 
Verlaine  at  his  best  was  rather  a  primitive  than  a  decadent, 
for  his  poetry  is  not  ambitious;  his  best  art  was  as  natural  and 
proper,  if  we  consider  his  situation  in  time  and  space,  and  poten- 
tially as  valuable  to  his  successors,  as  was  the  art  of  the  author  of 

1  do  not  mean  that  Verlaine's  limitations  were  inevitable,  how- 
ever. In  offering  an  historical  excuse  for  decadence,  formal  or 
personal,  I  dp  not  mean  to  imply  that  there  is  ever  an  historical 
necessity  for  either,  but  merely  that  life  is  painful  if  one  expects 
more  than  two  or  three  men  in  a  century  to  behave  as  rational 
animals,  and  that  for  a  good  many  men  there  are  mitigating  cir- 
cumstances. Baudelaire  ran  through  romanticism  early  in  his 
career,  to  achieve  the  most  remarkable  balance  of  powers  in 
French  literature  after  Racine;  he  had  no  need  of  several  genera- 
tions of  graduated  decadence;  his  recovery  was  accomplished  at 
a  bound.  He  was  determined  by  his  period  only  to  this  extent: 
that  he  dealt  with  the  problem  of  evil  in  the  terms  in  which  he 
had  met  it,  the  terms  of  the  romantic  view  of  life;  and  it  was 
because  of  these  terms  that  he  was  able  to  embody  the  universal 
principles  of  evil  in  the  experience  of  his  own  age  and  evaluate 
that  experience. 

Our  own  position  may  be  similar.  If  we  doubt  the  value  of  the 
romantic  communion,  if  we  cannot  see  that  the  poet  who  has 
survived  it  is  a  better  poet  for  it,  we  may  at  least  say  this:  that 
the  communion,  as  we  have  experienced  it  historically,  if  not  per- 
sonally, has  extended  our  knowledge  of  evil  and  so  made  us 

wiser;  for  the  moral  intelligence  is  merely  the  knowledge  and 
evaluation  of  evil;  and  the  moral  intelligence  is  the  measure  of 
the  man  and  of  the  poet  alike.  It  may  seem  a  hard  thing  to  say  of 
that  troubled  and  magnificent  spirit,  Hart  Crane,  that  we  shall 
remember  him  chiefly  for  his  having  shown  us  a  new  mode  of 
damnation,  yet  it  is  for  this  that  we  remember  Orestes,  and 
Crane  has  in  addition  the  glory  of  being,  if  not  his  own  /Eschy- 
lus,  perhaps,  in  some  fragmentary  manner,  his  own  Euripides. 
Again,  we  should  remember  that  there  is  no  certitude  that 
several  generations  of  graduated  decadence  will  lead  to  recovery; 
they  may  lead  merely  to  a  general  condition  of  hypochondria. 
Crane's  first  book  was  better  than  his  second,  and  the  work  of  his 
last  few  years  displays  utter  collapse.  T.  S.  Eliot  abandoned  La- 
forguian  irony  not  to  correct  his  feelings,  but  to  remain  satisfied 
with  them:  his  career  since  has  been  largely  a  career  of  what  one 
might  call  psychic  impressionism,  a  formless  curiosity  concerning 
queer  feelings  which  are  related  to  odds  and  ends  of  more  or  less 
profound  thought.  There  is  current  at  present  a  very  general 
opinion  that  it  is  impossible  in  our  time  to  write  good  poetry  in 
the  mode,  let  us  say,  of  Bridges,  either  because  of  the  kind  of 
poetry  that  has  been  written  since  ("the  stylistic  advances  of 
Eliot  and  of  Pound"),  or  because  of  social  conditions  ("the  chaos 
of  modern  thought"),  or  because  of  both,  or  because  of  something 
else.  I  believe  this  to  be  a  form  of  group  hypochondria.  The  sim- 
ple fact  of  the  matter  is,  that  it  is  harder  to  imitate  Bridges  than 
to  imitate  Pound  or  Eliot,  as  it  is  harder  to  appreciate  him,  be- 
cause Bridges  is  a  finer  poet  and  a  saner  man;  he  knows  more 
than  they,  and  to  meet  him  on  his  own  ground  we  must  know 
more  than  to  meet  them. 

Many  experimental  poets,  by  limiting  themselves  to  an  abnor- 
mal convention,  limit  themselves  in  range  or  in  approach:  that  is, 
become  primitives  or  decadents  of  necessity;  and  they  lack  the 
energy  or  ability  to  break  free  of  the  elaborate  and  mechanical 
habits  which  they  have,  in  perfecting,  imposed  upon  themselves. 
Miss  Moore,  Dr,  Williams,  Gerard  Hopkins,  and  Ezra  Pound 
might  all  serve  as  examples.  In  other  words,  the  selection  of  a 
convention  is  a  very  serious  matter;  and  the  poet  who  sets  out  to 


widen  his  tradition  may  often  succeed  only  in  narrowing  or 
sterilizing  himself.  Crashaw's  experimenting  at  its  wildest  gets 
wholly  out  of  hand  and  becomes  pseudo-referent  decadence. 
Nevertheless,  the  experimenting  of  Donne  and  of  Crashaw  is 
subject  to  the  check  of  a  comprehensible  philosophy,  as  the  ex- 
perimentalism  of  Pound  and  of  Crane  is  not.  The  experimental- 
ism  of  Milton  was  subject  to  such  a  check  and  was,  I  think  one 
may  say,  necessitated  by  the  unprecedented  scope  of  his  plan  and 
by  the  unprecedented  violence  and  magnificence  of  his  mind,  but 
this  is  not  to  say  that  he  was  the  greatest  of  poets,  though  he  was, 
of  course,  one  of  the  greatest. 

The  relationship  between  experimentalism,  decadence,  and 
primitivism  is  thus  seen  to  be  intimate,  though  it  would  be  rash 
to  formulate  many  laws  of  the  relationship. 

Decadent  poetry  may  be  valuable  as  a  point  of  departure,  either 
to  its  authors  or  to  others,  exactly  in  so  far  as  its  deficiencies  are 
recognized  and  are  susceptible  of  correction.  Not  all  types  of 
decadent  poetry  need  be  equally  valuable  in  this  respect,  though 
the  understanding  of  one  may  equal  in  value  the  understanding 
of  another  as  a  form  of  moral  knowledge.  Unless  the  deficiencies 
of  a  decadent  convention  are  recognized,  there  is  little  likelihood 
that  the  convention  will  be  improved;  there  is  great  likelihood 
that  it  will  deteriorate;  for  it  is  the  nature  of  man  to  deteriorate 
unless  he  recognizes  the  tendency  and  the  source  of  the  deterio- 
ration and  expends  actual  effort  to  reduce  them. 



Section  I:   FOREWORD 

I  HAVE  ENDEAVORED  to  show  in  other  essays  that  the  morality  of 
poetry  is  inextricably  involved  in  its  form,  and  in  a  particular 
essay  that  it  is  closely  related  to  the  convention,  or  norm  of  feel- 
ing, of  any  particular  poem,  and  to  certain  general  types  of  con- 
vention. As  the  norm  of  a  poem  will  set  certain  limits  upon  the 
range  and  procedure  and  quality  of  feeling  possible  within  the 
poem,  we  may  say  that  a  convention,  whether  we  take  the  term 
in  the  particular  or  in  the  generic  sense,  has  a  life  of  its  own  to 
which  the  poet  is  largely  subjected  once  he  has  adopted  it.  I  have 
tried  to  indicate,  in  discussing  the  idea  of  convention,  that  meter 
plays  an  important  part  in  the  establishment  of  convention.  I  shall 
now  endeavor  to  draw  certain  general  conclusions  regarding  the 
poetic  effectiveness  of  a  few  basic  types  of  meter. 

This  essay  will  be  divided  into  five  sections,  as  follows: 

The  first  section  comprises  the  present  descriptive  foreword. 

The  second  section  contains  a  brief  sketch  of  the  theory  of 
traditional  English  meter  on  which  my  scansion  of  experimental 
meter  and  my  theories  regarding  the  relationship  of  meter  to 
poetic  convention  are  based. 

The  third  section  is  a  study  of  the  scansion  of  free  verse  and  of 
the  influence  of  free  verse  rhythms  upon  poetic  convention.  I 
have  begun  this  analysis  with  specimens  of  my  own  free  verse  be- 
cause I  can  speak  of  my  own  intentions  with  a  certain  amount  of 
authority.  I  have  proceeded  thence  to  the  poets  from  whose 
practice  I  derived  my  own.  I  am  not  sure,  however,  that  my  own 

poems  offer  the  clearest  illustrations  available  with  which  to  in- 
troduce the  medium  to  the  reader  unfamiliar  with  its  principles. 
The  deliberate  effort  which  I  made  in  most  of  these  poems  to 
introduce  a  substructure,  iambic  as  to  beat,  but  not  pentameter, 
as  a  kind  of  counterpoint  to  the  free-verse  beat,  probably  renders 
much  of  my  free-verse  too  difficult  for  the  beginner  to  scan  and 
may  even  ruin  much  of  it  entirely.  The  specimens  from  Dr.  Wil- 
liams, H.  D.,  and  Mr.  Wallace  Stevens,  however,  though  they 
possess  great  finish  and  variety  of  movement,  probably  keep  the 
metrical  norm  a  little  more  obviously  in  view.  If  the  reader  finds 
the  meter  of  my  own  poems  obscure,  therefore,  he  may  fairly 
reserve  his  incredulity  regarding  the  system  of  scansion  until 
after  he  shall  have  studied  the  specimens  of  scansion  from  the 
other  writers. 

Even  so,  I  have  little  hope  that  many  readers  will  understand 
the  scansion  that  I  propose  for  free  verse,  chiefly  because  an  un- 
derstanding of  it  requires  a  very  thorough  knowledge  of  all  the 
best  poems  employing  the  medium  in  the  second  and  third  dec- 
ades of  our  century,  a  sensitive  and  conscientious  study  of  several 
years  in  duration,  the  immersion  of  the  student  in  a  particular 
way  of  feeling,  the  acquisition  of  a  new  and  difficult  set  of  habits 
of  hearing  and  of  audible  reading.  This  discipline  is  arduous  and 
on  the  face  of  it  is  not  particularly  tempting:  there  are  so  many 
other  things  that  one  can  do  instead.  In  the  few  years  past,  the 
discipline  has  been  almost  wholly  abandoned  save  by  the  few 
poets  of  the  Experimental  Generation1  whose  sensibilities  were 

1For  the  sake  of  a  few  loose  but  usable  terms,  I  offer  the  following  classi- 
fication of  20th  century  poetry  in  English:  I.  The  Generation  of  Forerunners: 
Hardy,  Bridges,  Yeats,  T.  Sturge  Moore,  and  Alice  Meynell;  II.  The  Genera- 
tion of  Transition:  Robinson,  Frost,  and  Agnes  Lee;  III.  The  Experimental 
Generation:  Stevens,  Williams,  Miss  Moore,  Miss  Loy,  Joyce  (whose  prose  is 
related  in  important  ways  to  the  verse  of  his  contemporaries),  Adelaide  Crapsey, 
Pound,  Eliot,  H.  D.,  and  Lawrence;  IV.  The  Reactionary  Generation:  Crane 
(a  member  of  this  group,  instead  of  the  last,  solely  by  virtue  of  his  dates,  per- 
sonal affiliations,  and  inability  to  write  or  understand  free  verse),  Tate,  Balcer, 
Blackmur,  Clayton  Stafford,  Louise  Bogan,  Grant  Code,  J.  V.  Cunningham, 
Don  Stanford,  Barbara  Gibbs.  Mr.  J.  C.  Ranson  is  a  kind  of  ambiguous  and  un- 
happy though  sometimes  distinguished  connective  between  this  group  and  the 
last.  The  direction  and  significance  of  this  group  are  clearest  in  Howard 
Baker,  in  a  little  of  Tate,  and  in  the  writing,  very  small  in  bulk  at  present,  of 
Stafford,  Stanford,  Cunningham,  and  perhaps  Miss  Gibbs.  Such  a  classifica- 


largely  formed  in  this  discipline.  The  most  distinguished  poets 
of  the  Reactionary  Generation1  who  have  attempted  free  verse- 
Hart  Crane  and  Louise  Bogan,  for  example— have  been  wholly 
unsuccessful  in  their  brief  and  rare  excursions  into  the  medium. 
The  Experimental  poets  who  mastered  the  medium,  it  is  worth 
observing,  were  those  who  for  some  years  were  more  or  less 
fanatical  on  the  subject  and  gave  themselves  over  to  it  wholly  or 
almost  wholly:  Wallace  Stevens  is  perhaps  the  only  poet  living 
who  has  practiced  the  new  and  the  old  meters  simultaneously 
and  at  a  high  level  of  excellence.  Very  few  readers,  even  profes- 
sionally literary  and  academic  readers,  will  give  the  subject  the 
attention  necessary  for  even  a  preliminary  perception  of  it,  but  I 
am  certain  of  the  soundness  of  my  scansion  and  wish  to  set  it  on 
record,  for  it  will  be  of  value  to  students  here  and  there  as  time 
goes  on. 

For  the  present,  suffice  it  to  say  that  my  objections  to  free  verse 
do  not  depend  upon  the  scansion  of  free  verse,  whether  the  verse 
be  mine  or  that  of  any  other;  the  objections  are  more  cogent  if 
the  verse  cannot  be  scanned.  My  system  of  scansion  is  offered  by 
way  of  a  preliminary  defense  of  the  medium,  to  show  what  it 
really  has  accomplished,  and  to  limit  as  far  as  possible  my  objec- 
tions, which,  in  my  opinion,  have  only  a  narrow,  though  a  quite 
definite,  margin  of  relevancy.  The  objections  are  closely  related 
to  objections  which  I  have  made  elsewhere  to  the  other  aspects  of 
the  recent  experimental  conventions. 

The  fourth  section  will  deal  with  the  relationship  of  experi- 
mental to  traditional  meters,  the  examples  being  drawn  mainly 
from  the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries,  and  will  endeavor 
to  show  that  the  relationships  are  more  fruitful  of  good  within 
the  old  framework  of  accentual-syllabic  meters  than  within,  or  in 
connection  with,  the  framework  of  free  verse. 

The  fifth  section  will  give  a  brief  summary  of  the  history  and 
principles  of  the  heroic  couplet,  and  of  its  effect  upon  poetic  con- 
vention in  the  past,  and  a  brief  comparison  of  the  powers  of  the 

tion  omits  good  poets  here  and  there:  de  la  Mare  and  Viola  Meynell  cannot 
quite  be  included;  the  most  important  omission  is  Elizabeth  Daryush,  the  finest 
British  poet  since  T.  Sturge  Moore. 


heroic  couplet  Cone  of  the  most  thoroughly  traditional  of  all 
forms)  with  the  powers  of  the  forms  that  have  been  used  in  re- 
cent years  to  take  something  resembling  its  place:  Websterian 
verse,  the  long  free-verse  line,  stemming  from  Whitman  and 
brought  to  its  greatest  perfection  by  Pound  and  by  Miss  Moore, 
and  the  syllabic  meters  of  Robert  Bridges. 

Although  this  essay  does  not  cover  every  known  form  of  meter, 
it  should  be  kept  in  mind  that  it  does  cover  the  following  fields: 
the  chief  types  of  modern  experimental  meter  in  their  relation- 
ship to  convention  (that  is,  the  common  varieties  of  lyrical  free 
verse,  and  of  semi-didactic  free  verse,  Websterian  verse,  and  the 
accentual  and  syllabic  systems  of  Hopkins  and  of  Bridges),  the 
principles  of  traditional  meter  in  its  relationship  to  convention, 
and  the  principles  of  the  relationships  between  traditional  and 
experimental  meters.  That,  as  nearly  as  I  can  discover,  is  the 
entire  bearing  of  the  subject  of  meter  on  my  present  studies. 


THE  POETIC?  LINE,  as  I  understand  the  subject,  has  at  one  time  or 
another  been  constructed  according  to  four  different  systems  of 
measurement:  the  quantitative,  or  classical  system,  according  to 
which  a  given  type  of  line  has  a  given  number  of  feet,  the  feet 
being  of  certain  recognized  types  and  being  constructed  on  the 
basis  of  the  lengths  of  the  component  syllables;  the  accentual,  or 
Anglo-Saxon,  system,  according  to  which  the  line  possesses  a 
certain  number  of  accents,  the  remainder  of  the  line  not  being 
measured,  a  system  of  which  free  verse  is  a  recent  and  especially 
complex  subdivision;  the  syllabic,  or  French,  system,  according  to 
which  a  line  is  measured  solely  by  the  number  of  syllables  which 
it  contains;  and  the  accentual-syllabic,  or  English,  system,  which 
in  reality  is  identical  with  the  classical  system  in  its  most  general 
principles,  except  that  accented  and  unaccented  syllables  displace 
long  and  short  as  the  basis  of  constructing  the  foot,  and  that 
pyrrhic  and  spondaic  feet  seldom  occur  and  might  in  fact  be  re- 
garded as  ideally  impossible  because  of  the  way  in  which  accent 
is  determined,  a  matter  which  I  shall  presently  discuss. 
1 06 

Mechanically  perfect  meter,  were  it  possible,  would  be  lifeless; 
meter  of  which  the  variation  is  purely  accidental  is,  like  all  other 
manifestations  of  pure  accident,  awkward  and  without  character. 
There  are  in  English  accentual-syllabic  meter  the  following  prin- 
ciples of  variation,  if  no  others: 

(1)  Substitution:  That  is,  an  inverted  or  trisyllabic  or  other 
foot  may  be  substituted  for  an  iambic  foot  in  an  iambic  line, 
or  similar  alterations  may  be  introduced  into  other  lines.  The 
method  of  substitution  varies  with  writers  and  with  periods.  In 
the  blank  verse  of  Ben  Jonson,  there  is  a  taut  regularity,  the  result 
of  the  very  careful  manipulation  of  iambic  and  trochaic  feet;  and 
then  occasionally  there  occurs  a  trisyllabic  substitution,  which 
effects  a  nervous  leap,  as  suddenly  stilled  as  it  was  undertaken : 

Thou  vermin,  have  I  taen  thee  out  of  dung, 
So  poor,  so  wretched,  when  no  living  thing 
Would  keep  thee  company  hut  a  spider  or  worse? 

The  device  of  trisyllabic  and  even  of  quatrosyllabic  substitu- 
tion is  practiced  by  Webster  to  such  an  extent  that  the  verse 
norm  almost  disappears,  and  certain  passages  are  interpreted  by 
some  editors  as  prose  and  by  others  as  verse,  with  about  an  equal 
show  of  reason.  Milton,  on  the  other  hand,  is  extremely  cautious 
in  the  use  of  trisyllabic  feet— his  extra  syllables  are  all  but  lost  in 
elision— but  he  goes  very  far  in  the  use  of  trochaic  feet  and  of 
trochaic  words  in  iambic  feet.  To  illustrate  the  use  of  the  trochaic 
word  in  the  iambic  foot,  we  may  employ  the  first  line  of  Jonson's 
lyric,  Drink  to  me  only  with  thine  eyes.  Here  we  have  a  trochee 
for  the  first  foot  and  iambs  for  the  remainder;  but  the  word  only 
is  itself  trochaic  and  echoes  the  trochaic  foot  with  which  the  line 
opens  and  at  the  same  time  functions  in  two  iambic  feet. 

(2)  Quantity.  Quantity  is  an  element  of  poetic  rhythm  in 
every  language,  regardless  of  whether  the  measure  is  based  upon 
it.  In  French,  a  relatively  unaccented  language  of  which  the 
verse  is  purely  syllabic,  quantity  and  phrase-stress,  which  are 
governed  by  no  set  rules,  provide  the  chief  sources  of  variation; 
in  English,  quantity  provides  one  major  source  of  variation. 


In  an  iambic  foot,  for  example,  the  unaccented  syllable  may  be 
short  and  the  accented  syllable  long  (there  is  no  strict  dividing 
point,  of  course,  between  short  and  long,  no  two  syllables  being 
of  identical  length,  and  no  arbitrary  categories  being  necessary 
where  the  measure  is  not  based  upon  quantity) :  such  a  foot  will 
seem  to  be  very  heavily  marked.  On  the  other  hand,  it  is  quite 
possible  for  the  unaccented  syllable  to  be  very  long  and  the  ac- 
cented syllable  very  short— consider,  for  example,  the  first  foot,  a 
strictly  iambic  one,  in  this  line  of  The  Nightingales,  by  Robert 

Nay,  barren  are  those  mountains  and  spent  the  streams. 

The  variations  resulting  from  this  principle  can  be  very  finely 
shaded;  so  much  so,  in  fact,  as  to  obscure  the  accent  on  some 

(3)  Varying  Degrees  of  Accent.  Accent,  like  quantity,  is  un- 
limited in  its  variations.  In  practice,  the  manner  of  distinguishing 
between  an  -accented  and  an  unaccented  syllable  is  superior,  I  be- 
lieve, to  the  manner  of  distinguishing  in  classical  verse  between  a 
long  syllable  and  a  short.  In  English  verse,  a  syllable  is  accented 
or  unaccented  wholly  in  relation  to  the  other  syllables  in  the  same 
foot,  whereas  in  classical  verse  each  syllable  is  arbitrarily  classified 
by  rule,  and  its  length  is  in  a  very  small  measure  dependent  upon 
the  context.  This  makes  for  a  greater  fluidity  and  sensitivity  in 
English,  I  suspect,  and  with  no  loss  of  precision,  perhaps  with  a 
gain  in  precision.  It  also  renders  the  spondaic  and  pyrrhic  feet 
theoretically  impossible,  as  I  have  said,  though  they  may  some- 
times be  approximated;  a  close  approximation  of  a  pyrrhic  is 
usually  followed  by  a  close  approximation  of  a  spondaic  as  in  the 
following  line: 

Through  rest  or  motion  the  noon  walks  the  same.2 

The  latter  half  of  the  word  motion  and  the  article  following  form 
a  fair  pyrrhic,  the  two  subsequent  words  a  spondaic. 

8  From  Noon  at  Neebish,  by  Don  Stanford,  Hound  and  Horn,  VII-4. 
1 08 

If  we  take  Ben  Jonson's  line,  "Drink  to  me  only  with  thine 
eyes/'  we  find  that  with  is  accented  in  relation  to  the  syllable  pre- 
ceding it,  but  that  it  is  more  lightly  accented  than  the  unaccented 
syllable  of  the  subsequent  foot.  One  has,  in  other  words,  a  mount- 
ing series  of  four  accents,  which  can  be  formally  divided  into 
two  iambic  feet,  and  which  is  in  addition  emphasized  by  an  al- 
most equally  progressive  quantitative  series.  A  very  slight  shift  of 
emphasis  in  each  of  these  two  feet  would  have  made  them  resem- 
ble the  two  in  the  line  previously  quoted,  the  pyrrhic  followed 
by  the  spondaic;  yet  the  pyrrhic-spondaic  combination  appears 
strikingly  abnormal  as  one  reads  it,  and  the  sequence  by  Jonson 
glides  by  almost  imperceptibly. 

This  rule  in  regard  to  the  variation  of  accent  is  normally  over- 
looked by  metrists;  it  is  wholly  overlooked,  for  example,  by  Robert 
Bridges.  The  oversight  results  in  Bridges'  refusal  to  differentiate, 
so  far  as  terminology  is  concerned— though  he  differentiates 
sharply  in  actual  practice— between  what  I  have  called  accentual- 
syllabic  and  syllabic  meters :  Bridges  applies  the  term  syllabic  in- 
discriminately to  both,  and  this  confusion  vitiates  in  a  serious 
manner,  I  believe,  the  general  conclusions  of  his  work  on  Milton's 
prosody:  he  scans  Milton  incorrectly,  it  appears  to  me,  for  this 
reason,  and  more  particularly  Milton's  later  work,  which  merely 
represents  learned  variation  to  an  extreme  degree  from  a  per- 
fectly perceptible  accentual-syllabic  norm,  variation  expressive  of 
very  violent  feeling. 

(4)  Sprung  Meter.  Sprung  meter  is  loosely  described  by  Hop- 
kins in  his  preface  to  his  poems.  It  consists  essentially  of  the  jux- 
taposition of  heavily  and  more  or  less  equally  accented  syllables 
by  other  means  than  normal  metrical  inversion;  it  is  thus  a  normal 
and  characteristic  phenomenon  of  English  syllabic  meter,  as 
written  by  Robert  Bridges  and  by  Elizabeth  Daryush,  meter  in 
which  accents  may  be  combined  at  will,  since  they  have  no  part 
in  the  measure,  and  it  is  equally  characteristic  of  purely  accentual 
meter,  in  which  the  measure  is  based  on  the  number  of  accents 
and  on  nothing  else,  so  that  monosyllabic  feet  may  easily  occur  in 
sequence.  When  sprung  meter  occurs  as  a  variant  of  normal  ac- 
centual-syllabic meter,  it  represents,  actually,  the  abandonment, 


for  the  moment,  of  the  accentual-syllabic  norm  in  favor  either  of 
the  syllabic  or  of  an  accentual  norm. 

Wyatt  employs  the  accentual  variety  of  sprung  rhythm,  that  in 
which  an  unaccented  syllable  is  dropped  from  between  two 
accented,  so  that  a  monosyllabic  foot  occurs,  as  in  the  second  line 

They  flee  from  me,  that  sometimes  did  me  seek 
With  naked  foot,  stalking  in  my  chamber.3 

Robert  Green,  whom  Hopkins  names  as  the  last  English  poet  to 
use  sprung  meter,  employs  the  same  species  as  a  variant  on  his 
seven-syllable-couplets : 

Up  I  start,  forth  went  I, 

With  her  face  to  feed  mine  eye.4 

The  norm  of  this  line  is  iambic  tetrameter,  with  the  initial  unac- 
cented syllable  omitted;  in  the  first  line  above,  an  additional 
unaccented  syllable  is  dropped  between  the  second  and  third  ac- 
cented. Green  often  writes  a  line  of  this  kind,  but  with  the  initial 
unaccented  syllable  returned  to  its  place,  so  that  the  syllable  count 
is  undisturbed: 

That  when  1  woke,  1  'gan  swear, 
Phyllis  beauty  palm  did  loear? 

A  more  normal,  perhaps  a  more  true,  example  of  syllabic 
sprung  rhythm  within  an  accentual-syllabic  poem,  is  the  follow- 
ing line  from  a  poem  by  Barnabe  Googe,  Of  Money:* 

Fair  face  show  friends  when  riches  do  abound. 

Here  the  accentual  weight  of  the  first  and  third  places  is  increased 
to  equal  approximately  the  weight  of  the  second  and  fourth;  we 

» and  4  and  5  Oxford  Book  of  16th  Century  Vsrse,  pages  51,  382,  and  381. 
°Arber's  English  Reprints. 


might  describe  the  first  two  feet  as  spondaic,  except  that,  as  there 
is  no  compensatory  pair  of  pyrrhics,  two  extra  accents  are  intro- 
duced into  the  line,  with  the  result  that  the  accentual  measure  is 
abandoned  and  we  have  no  measure  left  save  the  purely  syllabic. 

Robert  Bridges'  poem,  A  Passerby,  whatever  may  have  been  the 
intention  of  the  author,  can  be  scanned  as  a  poem  in  iambic 
pentameter,  with  certain  normal  substitutions,  and  with  examples 
at  irregular  intervals  of  both  kinds  of  sprung  meter. 

The  first  of  the  two  lines  below,  written  by  the  present  author, 
contains  both  kinds  of  sprung  meter  within  a  single  line: 

Warm  mind,  warm  heart,  beam,  bolt,  and  lock, 

You  hold  the  love  you  took,  and  now  at  length.  .  .  .7 

The  first  four  syllables  are  modeled  on  the  first  four  in  the  line  by 
Googe;  the  next  two  shift  to  accentual  meter,  for  each  represents 
a  single  foot;  the  last  two  syllables  are  a  perfect  iambic  foot.  The 
line  is  a  variant  within  a  sonnet  in  iambic  pentameter;  it  con- 
tains, according  to  the  scansion  just  given,  eight  syllables,  five 
feet,  seven  accented  syllables  (six  of  them  being  in  unbroken  se- 
quence), and  one  unaccented  syllable.  Variants  so  extraordinary 
as  this  are  seldom  wholly  admirable,  and  this  one  is  offered  pri- 
marily as  an  example  and  a  curiosity. 

The  reader  will  find  a  particularly  fine  example  of  sprung 
meter  in  a  poem  wholly  syllabic,  in  Still-Life,  by  Elizabeth  Dar- 
yush;8  of  sprung  meter  in  a  poem  wholly  accentual  in  Inversnaid, 
by  Gerard  Hopkins. 

7  In  a  pamphlet  called   Before   Disaster,   published   by   Tryon   Pamphlets, 
Tryon,  N.  C. 

8  This  poem  appears  in  full  near  the  end  of  this  essay,  and  is  quoted  from 
The  Last  Man,  and  Other  Poems,  by  Elizabeth  Daryush,  Oxford  Press,  Eng- 
land. Mrs.  Daryush  has  published  four  other  books  of  importance:  Verses:  First 
to  Fourth  Books  inclusive.  She  is  one  of  the  few  first-rate  poets  living,  and  is 
all  but  unknown. 



I  SHALL  BEGIN  the  description  of  my  system  for  the  scansion  of 
free  verse  with  an  account  of  two  poems  of  my  own  and  of  what 
I  endeavored  to  accomplish  in  them.  The  foot  which  I  have  used 
consists  of  one  heavily  accented  syllable,  an  unlimited  number  of 
unaccented  syllables,  and  an  unlimited  number  of  syllables  of 
secondary  accent.  This  resembles  the  accentual  meter  of  Hop- 
kins, except  that  Hopkins  employed  rhyme  He  appears  to  have 
had  the  secondary  accent,  or  subordinate  and  extra-metrical 
"foot/*  in  mind,  when  he  spoke  of  "hangers"  and  "outrides." 

Accents,  as  I  have  already  pointed  out,  cannot  be  placed  in  a 
definite  number  of  arbitrary  categories;  language  is  fluid,  and  a 
syllable  is  accented  in  a  certain  way  only  in  relation  to  the  rest  of 
the  foot.  The  secondary  accent  is  discernible  as  a  type  if  the  poet 
makes  it  so.  A  dozen  types  of  accent  are  possible  in  theory,  but  in 
practice  no  more  than  two  can  be  kept  distinct  in  the  mind;  in 
fact  it  is  not  always  easy  to  keep  two. 

Ambiguity  of  accent  will  be  more  common  in  such  verse  as  I 
am  describing  than  in  the  older  verse,  but  up  to  a  certain  point 
this  is  not  a  defect,  this  kind  of  ambiguity  being  one  of  the  chief 
beauties  of  Milton's  verse,  for  example.  The  poet  must  be  permit- 
ted to  use  his  judgment  in  dubious  instances,  and  the  critic  must 
do  his  best  to  perceive  the  reason  for  any  decision.  Quantity  will 
obviously  complicate  this  type  of  foot  more  than  it  will  the  foot 
of  the  more  familiar  meters. 

I  shall  mark  and  discuss  two  poems  of  my  own,  and  shall  then 
proceed  to  specimens  of  free  verse  from  some  of  the  chief  poets 
of  the  Experimental  generation,  upon  whose  work  my  own  ear 
for  this  medium  was  trained.  Since  a  line  which  is  complete 
metrically  may  for  the  sake  of  emphasis  be  printed  as  two  lines,  I 
shall  place  a  cross-bar  (/)  at  the  end  of  each  complete  line.  I  shall 
number  the  lines  which  are  so  marked,  for  ease  in  reference. 
Lines  which  are  incomplete  metrically,  but  which  are  independ- 
ent and  not  parts  of  complete  lines,  will  likewise  be  marked  and 
numbered,  and  these  lines  will  also  be  marked  with  an  asterisk 


(*).  I  shall  mark  each  primary  stress  with  double  points  (")  and 
each  secondary  stress  with  a  single  point  (0- 

"Quod  Tegit  Omnia" 

1  Earth  darkens  and  is  beaded/ 

2  with  a  sweat  of  hushes  and/ 

3  the  hear  comes  forth: 
the  mind  stored  -with/ 

4  magnificence  proceeds  into/ 

5  the  mystery  of  Time,  now/ 

6  certain  of  its  choice  of/ 

7  passion  but  uncertain  of  the/ 

8  passion's  end. 


9  Plato  temporizes  on  the  nature/ 

10  of  the  plumage  of  the  soul,  the/ 

11  wind  hums  in  the  feathers  as/ 

12  across  a  cord  impeccable  in/ 

13  taiitness  but  of  nff  mind:/ 

14  Time, 
the  sine-pondere>  most/ 

1 5  imperturbable  of  elements,/ 

16  assumes  its  own  proportions/ 

17  silently,  of  its  own  properties—/ 

18  an  excellence  at  which  one 

19  Adventurer  in 
living  fact,  the  poet/ 

20  mounts  into  the  spring/ 

21  upon  his  tongue  the  taste  of/ 

22  air  becoming  body:  is/ 

23  Embedded  in  this  crystalline/ 

24  precipitate  of  Time./ 


There  are  no  incomplete  lines  in  the  preceding  poem,  though  a 
few  lines  are  broken  in  two  for  the  sake  of  emphasis. 

The  next  poem  is  more  difficult.  I  shall  mark  it  as  if  it  con- 
tained two  feet  to  the  line,  and  as  if  most  of  the  lines  were  printed 
in  two  parts.  The  imperfect  lines  (unassimilable  half-lines)  are 
marked  with  a  single  asterisk  (*).  Unbroken  lines  are  marked 
with  a  double  asterisk  (**). 

The  Bitter  Moon 

1  Dry  snow  runs  burning 
on  the  ground  like  fire—/ 

2  the  quick  of  Hell  spin  on 
the  wind.  Should  I  Relieve/ 

3  in  this  your  body,  take  it 

at  its  word?  1  have  believed/ 

4  in  nothing.  Earth  burns  with  a 
shadow  that  has  held  my/ 

5  flesh;  the  eye  is  a  shadow 
that  consumes  the  mind/ 

6  *    Scream  into  air!  The  voices/ 

7  **  Of  the  dead  still  vibrate-/ 

8  they  will  find  them,  threading 
all  the  past  with  twinging/ 

9  **  wires  alive  like  hair  in  cold./ 

10  *  These  are  the  nerves/ 

11  **  of  death.  1  am  its  brain./ 

12  **  You  are  the  way,  the  oath/ 

13  I  take.  I  hold  to  this- 

I  bent  and  thwarted  by  a  will/ 

14  **  to  live  among  the  living  dead/ 

15  **  instead  of  the  dead  living;  I/ 

16  *  become  a  voice  to  sound  for./ 

17  **  Can  you  feel  through  Space,/ 

18  **  imagine  beyond  Time? 



19  snow  alive  with  moonlight 
licks  about  my  ankles./ 

20  **  Can  you  find  this  end?/ 

This  poem  is  marked,  as  I  have  said,  as  if  it  contained  two  feet 
to  the  line.  It  is  possible,  however,  to  regard  the  poem  as  having 
a  one-foot  line,  in  which  case  the  lines  marked  with  the  single 
asterisk  and  those  unmarked  are  regular,  and  those  marked  with 
the  double  asterisk  are  irregular.  The  two-foot  hypothesis  involves 
the  smaller  number  of  irregular  lines,  and  it  would  eliminate  for 
this  poem  a  difficulty  in  the  matter  of  theory;  to  wit  the  question 
of  whether  a  one-foot  line  is  a  practical  possibility.  Consider,  for 
example,  the  possibility  of  a  poem  in  iambic  lines  of  one  foot 
each.  The  poem  will  be,  if  unrhymed,  equal  to  an  indefinite 
progression  of  iambic  prose.  But  in  reply,  one  may  object  that 
except  for  iambic  pentameter,  and  except  for  occasional  imitations 
of  classical  verse,  no  unrhymed  verse  has  ever  been  successful  in 
English  in  the  past,  and  that  Herrick,  at  any  rate,  composed  one 
excellent  poem  in  lines  each  of  one  iambic  foot  ("Thus  I  /  Pass 
by  /  To  Die/'  etc.)  I  believe  that  this  discussion  will  show  that 
the  secondary  accent  makes  possible  the  use  of  unrhymed  lines  of 
any  length,  from  one  foot  up  to  as  many  as  can  be  managed  in 
any  other  form  of  meter  whether  rhymed  or  not. 

In  the  poem  preceding  the  last,  there  was  very  little  difficulty 
in  distinguishing  between  the  primary  and  the  secondary  accents; 
the  trouble  lay  in  distinguishing  between  secondary  accents  and 
unaccented  syllables.  But  when,  as  here,  it  is  the  two  types  of 
stress  that  are  hard  to  separate,  we  stand  in  danger  of  losing 
entirely  our  system  of  measurement.  Now,  if  the  meter  is  success- 
ful, there  are  in  this  poem  two  meters  running  concurrently  and 
providing  a  kind  of  counterpoint:  one  is  the  free-verse  meter, 
marked  by  the  heavy  beats,  and  the  other  is  an  iambic  meter, 
marked  by  all  the  beats,  whether  heavy  or  light.  The  poem  can- 
not be  arranged  in  blank  verse,  however,  for  the  iambic  passages 
are  incomplete,  are  fragments  laid  in  here  and  there  to  provide 
musical  complication  and  for  the  sake  of  their  connotative  value. 
If  the  heavy  beats  cannot  be  heard  as  distinct  from  the  light,  then 


the  free  verse  scheme  vanishes  and  one  has  left  only  a  frag- 
mentary blank  verse,  badly  arranged. 

Mr.  William  Rose  Ben£t,  in  the  Saturday  Review  of  Literature 
(New  York)  for  September  6,  1930,  objected  to  the  structure  of 
my  own  free  verse,  at  the  same  time  offering  realignments  of  two 
passages,  which  he  regarded  as  superior  to  my  own  alignments. 
A  few  weeks  later,  he  published  a  letter  from  myself,  which 
stated,  and  for  the  first  time  in  public,  the  general  principles 
which  I  am  now  discussing.  One  of  his  revisions  was  of  the  open- 
ing lines  of  the  poem  which  I  have  just  quoted.  He  heard  only 
the  incomplete  blank  verse  and  rearranged  the  passage  accord- 
ingly, some  of  the  available  fragments  of  blank  verse,  however, 
being  broken  in  ways  that  were  to  myself  inexplicable. 

My  own  free  verse  was  very  often  balanced  on  this  particular 
tight-rope.  During  the  period  in  which  I  was  composing  it,  I  was 
much  interested  in  the  possibility  of  making  the  stanza  and 
wherever  possible  the  poem  a  single  rhythmic  unit,  of  which  the 
line  was  a  part  not  sharply  separate.  This  effect  I  endeavored  to 
achieve  by  the  use  of  run-over  lines,  a  device  I  took  over  from  Dr. 
Williams,  lUiss  Moore,  and  Hopkins,  and  by  the  extreme  use  of 
a  continuous  iambic  undercurrent,  so  arranged  that  it  could  not 
be  written  successfully  as  blank  verse  and  that  it  would  smooth 
over  the  gap  from  one  line  of  free  verse  to  the  next. 

In  the  standard  meters,  the  run-over  line  tends  to  be  awkward 
because  of  the  heavy  rhythmic  pause  at  the  end  of  each  line: 
Milton  alone,  perhaps,  has  been  highly  and  uniformly  successful 
in  the  employment  of  the  device,  and  he  has  been  so  by  virtue  of 
the  greatest  example  of  the  grand  manner  in  literature,  a  conven- 
tion so  heightened  as  to  enable  him  to  employ  this  device,  which 
in  most  poets  is  destructively  violent,  as  a  basis  for  sensitive 
modulations  of  rhetoric.  Even  in  Websterian  verse  the  line-end  is 
too  heavily  marked  for  the  run-over  to  be  pleasing.  But  if  the 
rhythm  can  be  made  to  run  on  rapidly,  the  meaning  can  be 
allowed  to  do  so  with  impunity:  hence  the  terminations  in  arti- 
cles, adjectives,  and  similar  words  so  common  in  free  verse  of 
this  type,  and  even  the  frequent  terminations  in  mid-word  to  be 
observed  in  Hopkins  and  in  Miss  Moore,  this  last  liberty,  of 

course,  being  common  also  in  classical  verse,  in  which,  as  in 
much  free  verse,  the  line-end  pause  is  frequently  extremely  slight. 
Of  the  dangers  of  this  type  of  free  verse  I  shall  have  more  to  say 

In  the  poem  last  quoted,  much  of  the  metrical  ambiguity  arises 
from  the  use  of  an  unusually  long  foot,  which  allows  quantity 
an  opportunity  somewhat  greater  than  usual  to  obscure  the  ac- 
cent. In  the  line,  "at  its  word?  I  have  believed/*  word  receives  the 
primary  accent,  but  Relieved,  which  receives  a  secondary  accent, 
is  longer  and  may  seem  more  heavily  accented  to  the  unwary. 
In  the  line  "flesh;  the  eye  is  a  shadow,"  the  heavy  accent  goes  to 
eye,  but  flesh,  because  of  its  position  at  the  beginning  of  the  line 
and  before  the  semi-colon,  receives  more  length  than  it  would 
receive  in  most  other  places,  and  may  seem  for  the  moment  to 
receive  the  main  accent.  In  most  cases,  the  reader  will  find  that 
the  ambiguity  is  one  of  alternatives;  that  is,  he  will  naturally 
place  a  heavy  accent  on  one  word  or  on  the  other,  so  that  the 
pattern  will  not  be  damaged.  Ambiguities  of  this  sort,  and  within 
the  limits  just  mentioned,  may  be  a  source  of  value;  they  are,  as  I 
have  said,  one  of  the  principle  beauties  of  Milton's  versification. 
If  the  ambiguity,  in  free  verse,  however,  ceases  to  be  a  hesitation 
between  alternatives,  and  becomes  more  general,  the  metrical 
norm  is  destroyed. 

The  poets  from  whom  I  learned  to  write  free  verse  are  prob- 
ably better  subjects  than  myself  for  a  demonstration  of  the  theory. 
The  poem  quoted  below,  which  is  by  Dr.  Williams,  contains  two 
lines  of  double  length,  each  of  which  I  have  marked  with  an 

To  Waken  an  Old  Lady 

1  Old  tige  is 

2  a  flight  of  small 

3  cheeping  birds 

4  skimming 

5  hare  trees 

6  above  a  snow  glaze. 

7  *  Gaining  and  failing, 


8  they  are  buffeted 

9  by  a  dark  wind— 

10  but  what? 


11  On  the  harsh  weedstalks 

12  the  flock  has  rested— 

13  the  snow 

14  is  covered  with  broken 

15  seed-husks, 

16  and  the  wind  tempered 

17  with  a  shnll 

18  *  piping  of  plenty. 

It  will  be  observed  that  free  verse  requires  a  good  deal  of  vari- 
ation from  line  to  line  if  the  poem  is  to  keep  moving,  and  that  as 
the  one-foot  line  permits  only  a  limited  amount  of  variation  if  the 
foot  is  not  to  be  stretched  out  to  the  danger-point,  the  poet  must 
choose  between  a  very  short  poem  and  a  good  sprinkling  of  irreg- 
ular lines. 

H.  D.'s^Orchard  is  one  of  the  principal  masterpieces  of  the 
free-verse  movement.  It  employs  a  one-foot  line,  with  fourteen 
lines  of  double  length  out  of  a  total  of  thirty  lines : 

1  J  saw  the  first  pear 

2  As  it  fell 

3  *  The  honey-seeking,  golden-banded, 

4  The  yellow  swarm 

5  Was  not  more  fleet  than  I 

6  *  (Spare  us  from  loveliness!) 

7  And  I  jell  prostrate, 

8  Crying 

9  *  "You  have  flayed  us  with  your  blossoms; 

10  *  Spare  us  the  beauty 

11  Of  fruit-trees!" 

12  The  honey-seeking 

13  Paused  not; 

14  *  The  air  thundered  their  song 

15  *  And  I  dime  was  prostrate. 

16  O  rcwgh-hewn 

17  God  of  the  orchard 

18  *  I  bring  you  an  offering; 

19  Do  you  alone  unbeautiful 

20  Son  of  the  god 

21  *  Spare  us  from  lovelinessl 

22  These  fallen  hazel-nuts 

23  *  Stripped  late  of  their  green  sheaths; 

24  *  Grapes,  red-purple, 

25  Their  berries 

26  *  Dripping  with  wine; 

27  *  Pomegranates  already  broken 

28  And  shrunken  figs 

29  *  And  quinces  untouched 

30  *  I  bring  you  as  offering. 

Some  of  the  details  of  this  poem  should  be  mentioned.  Where 
there  is  a  long  foot,  the  heavily  accented  syllable  usually  appears 
to  receive  much  less  weight  than  in  a  short  foot,  the  crowd  of 
minor  syllables  absorbing  emphasis  from  the  major  syllable.  This 
absorption  is  sometimes,  though  not  invariably,  facilitated  by  the 
placing  of  two  long  feet  in  a  single  line.  Line  three  is  an  example 
of  this  rule;  line  nine  is  an  exception  to  it.  The  position  of  the 
accent  in  these  lines  is  relevant  to  their  respective  effects:  in  line 
three,  the  accent  is  at  the  beginning  of  each  foot,  with  the  sec- 
ondary accent  and  the  unaccented  syllables  following  in  a  rapid 
flicker,  an  arrangement  which  makes  for  speed;  in  line  nine,  the 
accent  falls  near  the  end  of  the  foot,  an  arrangement  which 
makes  for  a  heavy  stop;  in  both  lines  the  second  foot  repeats  the 
arrangement  of  the  first  foot,  except  for  the  very  light  syllable 
before  the  first  heavy  accent  in  line  three,  an  arrangement  which 
makes  for  clarity  and  emphasis  of  rhythm. 


If  the  reader  will  examine  again  some  of  the  preceding  poems, 
he  will  find  that  this  device  of  occasional  repetition,  either  within 
the  line  or  from  line  to  line,  may  be  used  effectively  for  another 
purpose:  it  may  provide  the  poet  with  a  kind  of  pause,  or  mo- 
ment of  balance,  between  different  movements,  both  of  them 
rapid,  a  pause  which  is  roughly  analogous  to  a  pause  at  the  end 
of  a  line  in  the  older  meters. 

Miss  Marianne  Moore  has  carried  the  method  of  continuity,  of 
unbroken  rush,  farther  than  anyone,  not  even  excepting  Hopkins. 
The  following  lines  are  from  her  poem,  A  Grave.  Since  an  ex- 
tremely long  foot  is  employed,  in  an  extremely  long  line,  I  have 
placed  a  cross-bar  at  the  end  of  each  foot: 

1  men  lower  nets,/  unconscious  of  the  fact/  that  they  are 

desecrating/  a  grave,/ 

2  and  row  quickly/  away/  the  blades/  of  the  oars/ 

3  moving  together  like  the/  feet  of  water-spiders/  as  if  there 

were  no  such  thing/  as  death./ 

4  The  wrinkles  progress/  upon  themselves  in  a  phalanx,/ 

beautiful/  under  networks  of  foam,/ 

5  and  fade  breathlessly/  while  the  sea  rustles/  in  and  out  of/ 

the  seaweed./ 

Most  of  the  generalizations  drawn  from  the  poem  by  H.  D. 
could  be  as  well  illustrated  by  examples  taken  from  this  passage. 
I  have  spoken  of  the  remarkably  continuous  movement  in 
Miss  Moore's  verse;  but  Miss  Moore  is  seldom  wholly  at  one  with 
her  meter.  There  may  be,  as  in  this  passage,  brilliant  onomato- 
poetic  effects,  but  the  breathlessness  of  the  movement  is  usually 
in  contrast  to  the  minuteness  of  the  details,  and  this  contrast 
frequently  strengthens  the  half-ominous,  half-ironic  quality  of 
the  details,  at  the  same  time  that  it  is  drawing  them  rather  forci- 
bly into  a  single  pattern.  This  is  not  a  defect,  at  least  in  the 
shorter  poems:  it  is  a  means  of  saying  something  that  could  have 
been  said  in  no  other  way;  and  what  is  said  is  valuable.  But  the 
instrument  is  highly  specialized  and  has  a  very  narrow  range  of 


A  further  danger  inherent  in  the  instrument  becomes  apparent 
in  Miss  Moore's  longer  poems,  such  as  Marriage  and  The  Octo- 
pus. These  poems  are  at  once  satiric  and  didactic,  but  the  satiric 
and  didactic  forms  require  of  their  very  nature  a  coherent  ra- 
tional frame.  The  poems  have  no  such  frame,  but  are  essentially 
fragmentary  and  disconnected.  The  meter,  however,  is  emphati- 
cally continuous,  and  creates  a  kind  of  temporary  illusion  of  com- 
plete continuity:  it  is  a  conventional  continuity  which  never 
receives  its  justification.  Despite  the  brilliance  of  much  of  the 
detail,  this  unsupported  convention  is  as  disappointing  as  the 
Miltonic  convention  in  Thomson;  it  is  a  meaningless  shell.  In 
the  shorter  poems,  the  stated  theme  often  correlates  the  details 

Dr.  W.  C.  Williams  once  remarked  to  me  in  a  letter  that  free 
verse  was  to  him  a  means  of  obtaining  widely  varying  speeds 
within  a  given  type  of  foot.  I  believe  that  this  describes  what  we 
have  seen  taking  place  in  the  examples  of  free  verse  which  I  have 
analyzed.  But  if  the  secondary  accent  becomes  negligible  for 
many  lines  in  sequence,  if,  in  other  words,  the  speed  from  foot  to 
foot  does  not  vary  widely,  the  poem  becomes  one  of  two  things: 
if  the  accentuation  is  regular,  the  poem  is  unrhymed  metrical 
verse  of  the  old  sort;  or  if  the  accentuation  is  irregular,  the  poem 
may  be  a  loose  unrhymed  doggerel  but  will  probably  be  prose. 
Or  there  may  be  an  uneven  mixture  of  regularity  and  of  irregu- 
larity, which  is  the  possibility  least  to  be  desired. 

The  opening  of  Richard  Aldington's  Choricos  illustrates  the 
mixture  of  free  and  regular  verse: 

1  The  ancient  songs 

2  Pass  deathward  mournfully. 

3  Cold  lips  that  sing  no  more,  and  withered  wreaths, 

4  Regretful  eyes,  and  drooping  breasts  and  wings— 

5  Symbols  of  ancient  songs 

6  Mournfully  passing 

7  Down  to  the  great  white  surges.  .  .  . 


The  first  four  lines  comprise  three  perfect  lines  of  blank  verse 
Elsewhere  in  the  same  poem,  we  may  find  free  verse  aban- 
doned for  prose,  the  line-endings  serving  only  as  a  kind  of  punc- 

1  And  silently, 

2  And  with  slow  feet  approaching, 

3  And  with  bowed  head  and  unlit  eyes 

4  We  kneel  before  thee, 

5  And  thou,  leaning  toward  us, 

6  Caressingly  layest  upon  us 

7  flowers  from  thy  thin  cold  hands; 

8  Andy  smiling  as  a  chaste  woman 

9  Knowing  love  in  her  heart, 

10  Thou  sealest  our  eyes. 

11  And  the  illimitable  quietude 

12  Comes  gently  upon  us. 

The  first  three  lines  of  this  passage  might  pass  for  free  verse  of 
the  same  kind  that  Mr.  Aldington  has  used  elsewhere  in  the 
same  poem^but  line  four,  in  spite  of  the  fact  that  it  can  be  given 
two  major  accents,  does  not  continue  the  movement  previously 
established.  Line  eight  is  similarly  troublesome,  and  the  remain- 
ing lines  are  uncertain.  The  difficulty  is  not  mathematical  but 
rhythmic:  the  movement  of  the  lines  in  the  context  is  awkward 
and  breaks  down  the  context. 

This  passage  raises  and  answers  a  rather  troublesome  question. 
It  is  possible  that  any  passage  of  prose— even  the  prose  that  I  am 
now  writing— might  be  marked  off  into  more  or  less  discernible 
feet  of  the  kind  that  I  have  described,  each  foot  having  a  heavy 
accent  and  one  or  more  or  perhaps  no  light  accents,  and  a  vary- 
ing number  of  relatively  unaccented  syllables.  These  feet  could 
then  be  written  one  or  two  or  three  to  a  line.  Would  the  result 
be  free  verse?  I  believe  not. 

We  are  supposing  in  the  first  place  that  the  writer  of  prose  will 
instinctively  choose  syllables  that  fall  naturally  into  three  clearly 
discernible  classes;  whereas  this  classification  of  syllables  in  free 
verse  is,  in  the  long  run,  the  result  of  a  deliberate  choice,  even 


though  the  poet  may  be  guided  only  by  ear  and  not  by  theory. 
But  let  us  for  the  sake  of  argument  neglect  this  objection. 

The  accented  syllables  are  necessary  to  free  verse,  but  more  is 
necessary:  the  remaining  syllables  must  be  disposed  in  such  a 
way  as  to  establish  an  harmonious  and  continuous  movement. 
But  can  the  laws  of  this  harmonious  and  continuous  movement 
be  defined?  That  is,  can  one  define  every  possible  type  of  free 
verse  foot  and  can  one  then  establish  all  of  the  combinations 
possible  and  rule  out  all  the  unsatisfactory  combinations?  I  have 
never  gone  into  this  subject  experimentally,  but  I  believe  that 
one  can  demonstrate  rationally  that  the  compilation  of  such  laws 
is  impossible. 

The  free  verse  foot  is  very  long,  or  is  likely  to  be.  No  two  feet 
composed  of  different  words  can  ever  have  exactly  the  same 
values  either  of  accent  or  of  quantity.  If  one  will  mark  off  the 
passage  quoted  from  Mr.  Aldington,  for  example,  one  will  get 
certain  combinations  which  are  unsuccessful;  but  one  cannot  say 
that  the  duplication  of  the  same  series  of  accent  marks  in  a  dif- 
ferent group  of  words  will  be  unsuccessful,  because  the  duplica- 
tion of  accent  marks  will  not  mean  the  duplication  of  the  exact 
weights  and  lengths  of  the  original  passage.  The  free  verse  foot  is 
simply  too  long  and  too  complicated  to  be  handled  in  this  way. 
If  the  reader  feels  that  this  proves  free  verse  to  be  no  verse  at  all, 
I  have  two  answers:  first,  that  he  will  have  the  same  difficulty 
with  any  other  purely  accentual  verse,  from  the  Anglo-Saxon  to 
Hopkins  and  with  any  purely  syllabic;  secondly,  that  if  the 
rhythms  which  I  have  described  can  be  perceived  in  a  fairly  large 
number  of  poems,  and  if  the  failure  to  establish  such  rhythms 
can  be  perceived  in  other  poems,  one  has  a  rhythmic  system 
distinguishable  from  prose  and  frequently  of  poetic  intensity, 
and  it  matters  very  little  what  name  it  goes  by.  What  is  really 
important  is  the  extent  of  its  usefulness,  its  effect  upon  poetic 

I  do  not  wish  to  claim  that  the  poets  of  whom  I  write  in  this 
essay  had  my  system  of  scansion  in  mind  when  writing  their 
poems.  Probably  none  of  them  had  it.  What  I  wish  to  claim  is 
this:  that  the  really  good  free  verse  of  the  movement  can  be 


scanned  in  this  way,  and  that  the  nature  of  our  language  and  the 
difficulties  of  abandoning  the  old  forms  led  inevitably  to  this 
system,  though  frequently  by  way  of  a  good  deal  of  uncertain 

Mr.  Aldington's  Choricos  is  an  attempt  to  combine  certain  tra- 
ditional meters,  English  and  classical,  and  a  little  biblical  prose, 
in  a  single  poem,  just  as  Hugo,  for  example,  employed  different 
meters  in  a  single  poem,  but  this  procedure,  whether  employed 
by  Hugo  or  by  Richard  Aldington,  is  inevitably  too  loose  to  be 
satisfactory.  Other  poets  have  quite  deliberately  employed  simple 
prose  rhythms.  Sometimes  the  prose  is  very  good,  as  in  One  City 
Only,  by  Alice  Corbin,  or  as  in  a  few  poems  by  Mina  Loy.  But 
it  is  not  verse,  and  it  is  not  often  a  satisfactory  medium  for 
poetic  writing. 

The  masters  of  free  verse  of  the  Experimental  Generation  are 
William  Carlos  Williams,  Ezra  Pound,  Marianne  Moore,  Wal- 
lace Stevens,  H.  D.,  and  perhaps  Mina  Loy  in  a  few  poems, 
though  the  movement  of  Mina  Loy's  verse  is  usually  so  simpli- 
fied, so  denuded  of  secondary  accent,  as  to  be  indistinguishable 
from  prose.  Mr.  Eliot  never  got  beyond  Websterian  verse,  a 
bastard  variety,  though  in  Gerontion,  he  handled  it  with  great 
skill—with  far  greater  skill  than  Webster  usually  expends  upon 
it.  Mr.  T.  Sturge  Moore,  at  the  very  beginning  of  the  twentieth 
century,  published  a  very  brilliant  and  very  curious  specimen  of 
experimental  meter,  in  The  Rout  of  the  Amazons,  which,  like 
the  neo-Websterian  verse  of  Mr.  Eliot  and  of  others,  employs 
blank  verse  as  its  norm,  but  departs  farther  from  the  norm  than 
the  neo-Websterian  poets  have  been  able  to  depart,  and,  unlike 
the  neo-Websterian  verse,  never  seems  to  approach  prose,  but 
rather  approaches  a  firm  and  controlled  free  verse  as  its  extreme 

Free  verse  has  been  all  but  abandoned  by  the  next  generation : 
a  few  good  specimens  are  to  be  found  in  minor  poems  by  Glen- 
way  Wescott,  Grant  Code,  and  the  late  Kathleen  Tankersley 
Young;  but  Messrs.  Wescott  and  Code  have  written  their  best 
poems  in  other  forms,  and  so  have  all  of  their  ablest  contem- 


A  major  objection  to  free  verse  as  it  has  been  written  by  H.  D., 
Dr.  Williams,  and  perhaps  others,  and  the  objection  can  be 
raised  against  much  of  Hopkins  as  well,  is  this:  that  it  tends  to  a 
rapid  run-over  line,  so  that  the  poem,  or  in  the  case  of  a  fairly 
long  poem,  the  stanza  or  paragraph,  is  likely  to  be  the  most  im- 
portant rhythmic  unit,  the  lines  being  secondary.  Hopkins  was 
aware  of  this  tendency  in  his  poems,  but  apparently  not  of  its 
danger.  In  his  own  preface  to  his  poems,  he  writes:  ".  .  .  it  is 
natural  ...  for  the  lines  to  be  rove  over,  that  is,  for  the  scan- 
ning of  each  line  immediately  to  take  up  that  of  the  one  before, 
so  that  if  the  first  has  one  or  more  syllables  at  its  end  the  other 
must  have  as  many  the  less  at  its  beginning;  and  in  fact  the 
scanning  runs  on  without  break  from  the  beginning,  say,  of  a 
stanza  to  the  end  and  all  the  stanza  is  one  long  strain,  though 
written  in  lines  asunder/'  The  result  is  a  kind  of  breathless  rush, 
which  may  very. well  be  exciting,  but  which  tends  to  exclude 
or  to  falsify  all  save  a  certain  kind  of  feeling,  by  enforcing  what 
I  have  called,  in  my  essay  on  Poetic  Convention,  a  convention 
of  heightened  intensity. 

Hopkins  meets  the  difficulty  by  excluding  from  his  poetry 
nearly  all  feeling  that  is  not  ecstatic;  Dr.  Williams  meets  it  by 
allowing  and  utilizing  a  great  deal  of  language  that  is  largely 
conventional.  But  if  a  poem  is  written  wholly  in  conventional 
language,  it  becomes,  when  the  convention  is  of  this  type,  merely 
melodramatic  and  violent,  and,  when  the  convention  is  of  some 
other  type,  weak  in  some  other  and  corresponding  manner.  Dr. 
Williams  has  thrown  away  much  good  material  thus;  so  has  H. 
D.  done;  and  so  have  others. 

The  extremely  abnormal  convention  is  seldom  necessary,  I  be- 
lieve, to  the  expression  of  powerful  feeling.  Shakespeare  can  be 
just  as  mad  in  a  sonnet  as  can  Hopkins,  and  he  can  be  at  the  same 
time  a  great  many  other  things  which  Hopkins  cannot  be.  He 
has  a  more  limber  medium  and  is  able  to  deal  with  more  complex 
feelings.  I  mean  by  this,  that  if  no  one  quality  receives  extreme 
emphasis,  many  diverse  qualities  may  be  controlled  simultane- 
ously, but  that  if  one  single  quality  (the  ecstasy  of  the  thirteenth 
century  lyric,  Alisoun,  for  example)  does  receive  extreme  em- 


phasis,  it  crowds  other  qualities  out  of  the  poem.  The  meter,  the 
entire  tone,  of  Alisoun,  render  impossible  the  overtone  of  grief 
which  would  have  been  present  had  Hardy  dealt  with  the  same 
material,  and  which  would 'have  given  the  poem  greater  scope, 
greater  universality.  One  may  state  it  as  a  general  law,  moral  as 
well  as  metrical,  that  an  increase  in  complexity  commonly  results 
in  a  decrease  in  emphasis:  extreme  emphasis,  with  the  resultant 
limitation  of  scope,  is  a  form  of  unbalance.  Sexual  experience  is 
over-emphasized  in  the  works  of  D.  H,  Lawrence,  because  Law- 
rence understood  so  little  else— and  consequently  understood  sex- 
ual experience  so  ill.  In  a  very  few  poems,  notably  in  the  sonnet 
To  R.  B.,  Hopkins  avoids  his  usual  tone  in  a  considerable  meas- 
ure, by  reverting  toward  standard  meter.  His  rhymes  and  his  con- 
sequent independence  of  the  secondary  accent  enable  him  to  do 
this,  but  a  similar  reversion  is  impossible  in  free  verse,  a  medium 
in  which  the  reversion  would  simply  result  in  a  break-down  of 
form.  It  is  difficult  to  achieve  in  free  verse  the  freedom  of  move- 
ment and  the  range  of  material  offered  one  by  the  older  forms. 

A  few  poems  appear  to  indicate  that  a  greater  variety  of  feeling 
is  possible  in  free  verse,  however,  than  one  might  be  led  to  sus- 
pect by  the  poems  thus  far  quoted.  One  of  the  best  is  The  Snow 
Man,  by  Wallace  Stevens: 

1  *  One  must  have  a  mind  of  winter 

2  To  regard  the  frost  and  the  houghs 

3  Of  the  pine-trees  crusted  with  snow; 

4  And  have  been  cold  a  long  time 

5  *  To  behold  the  junipers  shagged  with  ice, 

6  The  spruces  rough  in  the  distant  glitter 

7  Of  the  January  sun;  and  not  to  think 

8  Of  any  misery  in  the  sound  of  the  wind, 

9  In  the  sound  of  a  few  leaves, 

10  *  Which  is  the  sound  of  the  land 

1 1  Full  of  the  same  wind 

12  That  is  blowing  in  the  same  hare  place 

13  For  the  listener,  who  listens  in  the  snow, 

14  And,  nothing  hims'elf,  beholds 

15  *  Nothing  that  is  not  there  and  the  nothing  that  is. 

The  norm  is  of  three  beats,  and  there  are  four  irregular  lines,  the 
first  and  third  having  two  beats  each,  the  second  and  fourth  hav- 
ing four.  Each  line  in  this  poem  ends  on  a  very  heavy  pause,  pro- 
vides, that  is,  a  long  moment  of  balance  before  the  next  move- 
ment begins.  The  manner  in  which  the  secondary  accents  are 
disposed  in  the  fifth,  sixth,  and  seventh  lines,  in  order  to  level 
and  accelerate  the  line,  is  remarkably  fine,  as  is  also  the  manner 
in  which  the  beat  becomes  slow  and  heavy  in  the  next  few  lines 
and  the  way  in  which  the  two  movements  are  resolved  at  the 
close.  There  is  complete  repose  between  the  lines,  great  speed 
and  great  slowness  within  the  line,  and  all  in  a  very  short  poem. 
Dr.  Williams  has  got  comparable  effects  here  and  there.  The  fol- 
lowing poem  by  Dr.  Williams  is  called  The  Widow's  Lament  in 

1  Sorrow  is  my  own  yard 

2  Where  the  new  grass 

3  Flames  as  it  has  flamed 

4  often  before,  hut  not 

5  with  the  cold  fire 

6  that  closes  round  me  this  year. 

7  Thirty-five  years 

8  1  lived  with  my  husband. 

9  The  plum-tree  is  white  toddy 

10  with  masses  of  flowers. 

1 1  Masses  of  flowers 

12  load  the  cherry  branches 

13  and  color  some  hushes 

14  yellow  and  some  red, 

15  but  the  grief  in  my  heart 

16  is  stronger  than  they; 

17  for  though  they  were  my  joy 

18  formerly,  today  1  notice  them 


19  and  turn  away  forgetting. 

20  Toddy  my  son  told  me 

21  *  That  in  the  meadow 

22  at  the  edge  of  the  heavy  woods 

23  in  the  distance,  he  saw 

24  trees  of  white  flowers. 

25  I  feel  that  I  would  like 

26  *  to  go  there 

27  and  fall  into  those  flowers 

28  *  and  sink  into  the  marsh  near  them. 

The  slow  heavy  movement  of  this  poem  of  two-foot  lines  is  ac- 
centuated by  the  periodic  swift  lines  (four,  six,  nine,  thirteen 
and  fourteen,  seventeen  and  eighteen  and  nineteen,  twenty-two, 
along  with  a  few  more  or  less  intermediate  lines,  like  one,  ten, 
eleven,  twelve,  and  twenty-eight)  out  of  which  the  slow  lines 
fall  with  greater  emphasis.  A  poem  of  much  greater  length  which 
displays  a  remarkable  range  of  feeling  is  Mr.  T.  Sturge  Moore's 
play  (or,  to  be  more  exact,  Eclogue)  entitled  The  Rout  of  the 
Amazons.  Mr.  Pound's  Cantos  offer  a  slow  and  deliberative 
movement,  but  are  as  bound  to  it  as  is  H.  D.  to  her  ecstasy. 

There  are  at  least  two  additional  objections  which  I  should 
mention  in  connection  with  the  tyranny  of  free-verse  movements, 
objections  perhaps  inclusive  or  causative  of  those  already  made; 
namely,  that  two  of  the  principles  of  variation— substitution  and 
immeasurably  variable  degrees  of  accent— which  are  open  to  the 
poet  employing  the  old  meters,  are  not  open  to  the  poet  employ- 
ing free  verse,  for,  as  regards  substitution,  there  is  no  normal  foot 
from  which  to  depart,  and,  as  regards  accent,  there  is  no  foot  to 
indicate  which  syllables  are  to  be  considered  accented,  but  the 
accented  syllable  must  identify  itself  in  relation  to  the  entire  line, 
the  result  being  that  accents  are  of  fairly  fixed  degrees,  and  cer- 
tain ranges  of  possible  accent  are  necessarily  represented  by  gaps. 
In  free  verse  the  only  norm,  so  far  as  the  structure  of  the  foot  is 
concerned,  is  perpetual  variation,  and  the  only  principle  govern- 
ing the  selection  of  any  foot  is  a  feeling  of  rhythmical  continuity; 
and  on  the  other  hand  the  norm  of  the  line,  a  certain  number  of 

accents  of  recognizably  constant  intensity,  and  in  spite  of  the 
presence  of  the  relatively  variable  secondary  accents,  inevitably 
results  in  the  species  of  inflexibility  which  we  have  seen  equally 
in  the  fast  meters  of  Williams  and  in  the  slow  meters  of  Pound. 
The  free-verse  poet,  however,  achieves  effects  roughly  com- 
parable to  those  of  substitution  in  the  old  meters  in  two  ways: 
first  by  the  use  of  lines  of  irregular  length,  a  device  which  he 
employs  much  more  commonly  than  does  the  poet  of  the  old 
meters  and  with  an  effect  quite  foreign  to  the  effect  of  too  few  or 
of  extra  feet  in  the  old  meters;  and,  secondly,  since  the  norm  is 
perpetual  variation,  by  the  approximate  repetition  of  a  foot  or  of 
a  series  of  feet.  It  is  a  question  whether  such  effects  can  be  em- 
ployed with  a  subtlety  equal  to  that  of  fine  substitution.  Per- 
sonally I  am  convinced  that  they  cannot  be;  for  in  traditional 
verse,  each  variation,  no  matter  how  slight,  is  exactly  perceptible 
and  as  a  result  can  be  given  exact  meaning  as  an  act  of  moral 
perception.  Exactness  of  language  is  always  a  great  advantage, 
and  the  deficiencies  of  free  verse  in  this  respect  will  be  more 
evident  after  an  examination  of  some  of  the  traditional  meters. 



IN  DESCRIBING  THE  CONSEQUENCES  of  the  swifter  forms  of  free 
verse  and  of  the  meters  of  Hopkins,  I  have  indicated  a  general 
principle  which  accounts  for  a  definite  and  often-regretted  tend- 
ency in  the  history  of  English  meter— the  tendency  of  successive 
generations  of  poets  to  level  their  meters  more  and  more  toward 
the  iambic,  that  is,  toward  the  normal  meter  of  the  language,  and 
at  the  same  time  to  simplify  their  rhyme  schemes,  to  depart,  at 
least,  from  those  schemes,  which,  like  that  of  Alisoun,  contribute 
to  a  swift  and  lilting  music  or  to  some  other  highly  specialized 
effect.  Without  assuming  the  truth  of  any  theories  of  evolution, 
of  progress,  or  of  continuous  development  in  poetry,  we  may 
recognize  the  facts  that  within  limited  historical  patterns,  early 
poetry  is  simple  and  later  poetry  is  likely  to  be  relatively  complex, 
these  two  adjectives  being  understood  as  relating  to  the  content 


of  the  poetry,  the  moral  consciousness  of  the  art;  that,  as  the 
complex  poetry  deadens,  or,  the  commoner  phenomenon,  as  the 
critical  sensibility  to  it  deadens  and  the  fashion  begins  to  change, 
there  are  likely  to  be  new  outbreaks  of  emphatic  and  relatively 
simple,  but  nevertheless  fresh,  feeling,  which  eventually  may 
reinvigorate  the  older  tradition. 

How,  then,  can  one  reconcile  in  theory  this  tendency  to  in- 
creasing complexity  of  feeling  with  the  tendency  to  increasing 
simplicity  of  means?  The  answer,  I  believe,  is  fairly  simple.  The 
nearer  a  norm  a  writer  hovers,  the  more  able  is  he  to  vary  his 
feelings  in  opposite  or  even  in  many  directions,  and  the  more 
significant  will  be  his  variations.  I  have  observed  elsewhere  that 
variations  of  any  kind  are  more  important  in  proportion  as  they 
are  habitually  less  pronounced:  a  man  who  speaks  habitually  at 
the  top  of  his  voice  cannot  raise  his  voice,  but  a  man  who  speaks 
quietly  commands  attention  by  means  of  a  minute  inflection.  So 
elaborately  and  emphatically  joyous  a  poem  as  Alisoun,  for  ex- 
ample, can  be  only  and  exclusively  joyous;  but  Hardy,  in  the 
more  level  and  calmer  song,  During  Wind  and  Rain,  can  define 
a  joy  fully  as  profound,  indeed  more  profound,  at  the  same  time 
that  he  is  dealing  primarily  with  a  tragic  theme.  To  extend  the 
comparison  to  free  verse,  H.  D/s  Orchard  is  purely  ecstatic;  it  is 
as  limited  in  its  theme  as  is  Alisoun,  and  as  specialized  in  its 
meter.  But  Dr.  Williams'  poem,  The  Widow's  Lament,  is  at  once 
simpler  and  calmer  in  meter  and  more  profound  in  feeling.  The 
difference  between  these  two  poems,  of  course,  is  due  wholly  to  a 
difference  in  temperament,  and  not  to  the  passage  of  centuries. 
That  a  specimen  of  free  verse  can  be  found  displaying  a  com- 
plexity and  a  profundity  comparable  to  those  of  such  poems  as 
Hardy's  During  Wind  and  Rain  and  Bridges'  Love  not  too  much, 
I  do  not  believe;  nor  do  I  believe  that  such  a  poem  can  ever  be 
composed.  For  reasons  that  will  become  increasingly  clear  as  this 
discussion  progresses,  I  believe  that  the  nature  of  free  verse  is  a 
permanent  obstacle  to  such  a  composition. 

It  is  worth  noting  that  the  songs  of  Shakespeare  are,  for  the 
most  part,  the  most  varied  and  brilliant  exhibitions  of  minutely 
skillful  writing  which  we  possess,  as  well  as  the  most  song-like 

of  songs.  They  are  likewise  nearly  as  frail,  nearly  as  minor,  as 
any  wholly  successful  poetry  could  be.  The  sonnets,  on  the  other 
hand,  remain,  I  suppose,  our  standard  of  the  greatest  possible 
poetry;  they  are  written  in  the  normal  line  of  our  poetry  and  in 
the  simplest  form  of  the  sonnet. 

The  lilting  movement  of  the  sixteenth  century  lyrical  meters, 
of  Sidney,  of  England's  Helicon,  disappears  from  the  work  of  the 
great  masters  of  the  seventeenth  century.  Even  Herrick  suggests 
the  old  feeling  ever  so  slightly,  though  quite  deliberately— his 
line  has  a  stony  solidity  utterly  foreign  to  the  lyrics  of  fifty  years 
earlier.  Donne  employs  at  times  movements  which  suggest  the 
earlier  movements,  as,  for  example,  in  the  songs,  Sweetest  love  1 
do  not  go,  and  Go  and  catch  a  falling  star,  but  his  bony  step  is 
wholly  different  from  the  light  pausing  and  shifting  of  Sidney;  it 
is  a  grimly  serious  parody.  George  Herbert's  Church  Monuments, 
perhaps  the  most  polished  and  urbane  poem  of  the  Metaphysical 
School  and  one  of  the  half  dozen  most  profound,  is  written  in 
an  iambic  pentameter  line  so  carefully  modulated,  and  with  its 
rhymes  so  carefully  concealed  at  different  and  unexpected  points 
in  the  syntax,  that  the  poem  suggests  something  of  the  quiet 
plainness  of  excellent  prose  without  losing  the  organization  and 
variety  of  verse. 

Crashaw,  in  his  most  beautiful  devotional  poetry,  employs 
cadences  and  imagery  suggestive  of  earlier  love  poetry  and  drink- 
ing songs.  Thus,  in  his  paraphrase  of  the  Twenty-third  Psalm,  he 
writes : 

When  my  wayward  breath  is  flying^ 

He  calls  home  my  soul  from  dying. 

This  passage  corresponds  closely  to  a  passage  in  a  translation 
made  by  Crashaw  from  an  Italian  love  song,  a  fact  which  might 
lead  one  to  suspect  that  he  sought  deliberately  for  relationships 
between  disparate  modes  of  experience  and  that  the  correspond- 
ences—and there  are  many  of  them— in  his  other  poems  are  not 

When  my  dying 

Life  is  flying, 

Those  sweet  airs,  that  often  slew  me 

Shall  revive  we, 

Or  reprive  me, 
And  to  many  deaths  renew  me. 

The  reader  should  observe  that  there  is  here  not  only  a  resem- 
blance between  the  first  couplet  of  the  translated  stanza  and  the 
couplet  of  the  psalm,  but  that  the  traditional  image  of  physical 
love,  as  it  appears  in  the  translated  stanza,  serves  as  a  basis  for 
the  image  of  salvation  in  the  psalm;  something  similar  occurs  at 
the  climax  of  the  famous  poem  to  Saint  Theresa;  similar  also  is 
the  use,  in  his  various  references  to  the  Virgin,  of  imagery  bor- 
rowed from  Petrarchan  love-poetry;  similar  also  is  his  application 
of  Petrarchan  wit  to  sacred  subjects,  as  if  he  were,  like  some 
celestial  tumbler,  displaying  his  finest  training  and  ingenuity  for 
the  greater  glory,  and  out  of  the  purest  love,  of  God—in  fact,  it  is 
in  Crashaw  that  the  relationship  between  the  Petrarchan  conceit 
and  the  Metaphysical  conceit  is  perhaps  most  obvious.  The  para- 
phrase of  the  psalm,  which  is  the  more  complex  and  profound  of 
the  two  poems  just  mentioned,  is  written  in  couplets  and  ex- 
hibits very  few  feminine  rhymes.  The  sudden  shift  into  the 
feminine  rhyme  in  this  particular  couplet  gives  an  unexpected 
and  swiftly  dissipated  feeling  of  an  earlier,  more  emphatic,  and 
more  naive  lyricism. 

In  the  following  couplet,  likewise  from  the  paraphrase  of  the 
psalm,  there  is  both  in  the  meter  and  in  the  imagery  a  strong 
suggestion  of  the  poetry  of  conviviality: 

How  my  head  in  ointment  swims! 
How  my  cup  o'erlooks  her  hrims! 

The  head,  of  course,  is  not  swimming  with  drink,  and  the  cup  is 
the  cup  of  bliss,  but  the  instant  of  delirium  is  deliberately  sought 
and  impeccably  fixed.  The  meter  contributes  to  this  effect  in  two 
ways:  through  the  approximate  coincidence  of  length  and  ac- 
cent, with  the  resultant  swift  and  simplified  movement,  and 
through  the  almost  exact  metrical  similarity  of  the  two  lines.  The 


spiritualization,  if  one  may  employ  such  a  term,  of  the  convivial 
image  is  partly,  of  course,  the  work  of  the  context,  but  it  is  also, 
in  a  large  measure,  the  work  of  the  startling  word  oerlooks, 
which  takes  the  place  of  the  commoner  and  purely  physical 
oerflows:  the  word  not  only  implies  animation,  but  suggests  a 
trembling  balance.  The  last  couplet  of  the  same  poem  recalls 
the  earlier  love-lyrics  in  a  similar  manner: 

And  thence  my  ripe  soul  will  I  breath 
Warm  into  the  Arms  of  Death. 

One  can  find  many  other  passages  in  Crashaw's  devotional 
verse  to  illustrate  this  practice.  Crashaw  does  not,  in  passages  like 
these,  quote  or  borrow  from  earlier  poetry;  he  does  not  ordinarily 
even  suggest  a  particular  passage  or  line  from  an  earlier  poet. 
Rather,  by  fleeting  nuances  of  language,  he  suggests  an  anterior 
mode  of  poetic  expression  and  hence  of  experience,  and  in  a  con- 
text which  is  new  to  it.  More  commonly  than  not,  he  suggests  in 
this  manner  not  what  is  most  striking  in  an  earlier  body  of  poetry 
but  what  is  most  commonplace:  an  earlier  poetic  convention  be- 
comes the  material  of  his  perception,  and  contributes,  along  with 
other,  apparently  disparate,  and  non-literary  material,  the  ma- 
terial of  an  extremely  complex  poetic  structure.  It  is  in  ways  such 
as  this  that  Crashaw  is  traditional;  he  is  experimental  in  the  ways 
in  which  he  pushes  metaphor  beyond  the  bounds  of  custom  and 
frequently  even  of  reason.  Crashaw  is  noted  for  his  experiments; 
the  large  amount  of  poetry  in  which  the  traditional  predominates 
and  the  experimental  is  under  full  control  is  too  seldom  appreci- 

This  illusion  of  simplicity,  this  retreat  toward  the  norm,  of 
which  I  have  been  speaking,  can,  however,  be  achieved  only  by 
those  writers  who  have  mastered  the  more  emphatic  and  athletic 
exercises;  it  is  inconceivable  that  a  poet  insensitive  to  the  fresh 
and  skillful  enthusiasm  of  Sidney  should  achieve  the  subdued 
complexity  of  Crashaw,  Jonson,  or  Herrick.  The  beauty  of  the 
later  masters  resides  in  a  good  measure  in  what  they  suggest  and 
refrain  from  doing,  not  in  that  of  which  they  are  ignorant  or 


incapable.  Within  the  pattern  of  free  verse,  this  kind  of  sugges- 
tion is  impossible:  to  depart  from  a  given  movement  is  to  aban- 
don it;  the  absence  of  a  metrical  frame  accounting  for  the  agree- 
ment or  variation  of  every  syllable,  heavy  or  light,  and  allowing 
immeasurable  variation  of  accent,  makes  exact  and  subtle  vari- 
ation and  suggestion  impossible.  Similarly,  there  is  no  manner 
in  which  the  rhythms  of  a  poem  in  free  verse,  such  as  H.  D/s 
Orchard,  could  be  utilized  or  suggested  in  a  poem  in  accentual- 
syllabic  meter,  for  the  two  systems  are  unrelated  and  mutually 
destructive.  In  so  far,  however,  as  the  difficulties  of  maintaining 
rhythm  in  new  and  structurally  unsatisfactory  patterns,  may 
have  forced  poets  and  their  readers  to  strain  the  attention  upon 
certain  fine  shades  of  accent  and  quantity,  it  is  possible  that 
the  free-verse  poets  may  have  eventually  a  beneficial  effect  upon 
poets  writing  in  accentual-syllabic  verse;  in  so  far  as  free  verse 
has  encouraged  careless  substitution  in  the  older  meter,  has  en- 
couraged an  approximation  of  the  movement  of  accentual-sylla- 
bic verse  to  that  of  purely  accentual,  its  effect  has  quite  per- 
ceptibly beenHindesirable.  Eliot,  Tate,  and  MacLeish  exemplify 
the  latter  influence. 



A  BRIEF  STUDY  of  the  heroic  couplet  and  a  comparison  of  the 
couplet  with  certain  forms  that  have  been  used  for  more  or  less 
the  same  purposes  as  those  which  encouraged  the  couplet  may 
throw  a  little  more  light  on  our  subject. 

The  chief  masters  of  the  heroic  couplet  during  the  period  in 
which  it  was  the  most  widely  used  and  the  most  widely  useful 
poetic  instrument  are:  Dryden,  Pope,  Gay,  Johnson,  and  Church- 
ill. In  Goldsmith  and  in  Crabbe  alike  the  instrument  is  relaxed 
and  the  poem  is  diluted  either  with  facile  sentiment  or  with 
plodding  exposition,  although  much  admirable  poetry  may  be 
found  in  these  writers. 

Dryden  used  the  couplet  for  a  wide  variety  of  purposes.  In  his 
Alneid,  it  is  an  adequate  epic  instrument,  only  a  little  inferior  to 


Milton's  blank  verse,  the  inferiority  being  so  slight  as  to  be  fairly 
attributable  to  the  men  and  not  to  their  instruments.  As  an  ex- 
ample of  the  grandeur  to  which  Dryden  is  able  to  raise  this  form, 
we  may  turn  to  the  descent  of  yEneas  into  Hell  in  the  sixth  book, 
a  passage  quoted  by  Saintsbury,  and  as  fine  in  its  way  as  the 
original  of  Vergil. 

Dryden  employs  the  couplet  as  a  powerful  satirical  instrument, 
as  the  meter  for  some  of  our  greatest  didactic  poetry,  and,  in  the 
opening  lines  of  Religio  Laid,  as  the  medium  for  meditative 
lyricism  of  a  very  high  order. 

By  changing  to  feminine  rhymes,  by  placing  the  cesura  regu- 
larly after  the  third  foot,  and  by  using  an  internal  rhyme  at  this 
point  in  the  first  two  lines,  Dryden  transforms  the  couplet  into  a 
song  meter: 

No,  no  poor  suff'ring  heart,  no  change  endeavor; 
Choose  to  sustain  the  smart,  rather  than  leave  her: 
My  ravished  eyes  behold  such  charms  about  her, 
1  can  die  -with  her  but  not  live  without  her; 
One  tender  sigh  of  hers  to  see  me  languish, 
Will  more  than  pay  the  price  of  my  past  anguish. 
Beware,  O  cruel  fair,  how  you  smile  on  me; 
'Twos  a  kind  look  of  yours  that  has  undone  me. 

Love  has  in  store  for  me  one  happy  minute. 

And  she  will  end  my  pain  who  did  begin  it: 

Then  no  day  void  of  bliss  or  pleasure  leaving, 

Ages  shall  slide  away  without  perceiving; 

Cupid  shall  guard  the  door,  the  more  to  please  us, 

And  keep  out  time  and  Death,  when  they  would  seize  us. 

Time  and  Death  shall  depart,  and  say  in  flying, 

Love  has  found  out  a  way  to  live  by  dying. 

The  double  meaning  of  the  word  dying  and  the  compact  wit  re- 
call slightly  the  Metaphysical  School,  as  the  former  recalls  also 
the  song-books;  the  subject  also  recalls  the  song-books,  and  so 
does  the  careful  suggestion  of  song-rhythm.  Yet  the  poem  has  the 

sophisticated  plainness  of  Herrick.  These  suggestions  of  earlier, 
simpler,  and  more  emphatic  modes  are  real,  and  they  give  a  real 
profundity  to  the  poem,  a  profundity  fixed  in  the  pun  on  the  last 
word.  It  is  a  profundity  of  feeling,  not  of  thought.  The  poem  is 
one  of  the  best  examples  that  I  know  of  what  can  be  accom- 
plished by  means  of  meticulous  variations  from  a  rigid  norm. 

Pope  restricted  the  couplet  more  rigidly  than  did  Dryden.  In 
fact,  Pope,  and  his  friend  and  disciple,  Gay,  represent  the  closest 
approximation  to  what  we  now  recognize  as  the  normal  form  of 
the  instrument.  Earlier  poets  appear  to  be  converging  consciously 
toward  Pope  and  Gay,  who  are,  in  turn,  the  norm  from  which 
later  poets  consciously  and  carefully  depart.  Pope  in  particular  is 
crucial  to  the  history  of  the  form,  partly  by  virtue  of  his  very 

Pope,  for  example,  had  no  talent  for  purely  lyrical  composi- 
tion: his  efforts  in  that  direction  resulted  in  the  genteel  inepti- 
tude of  A  Dying  Christian  to  His  Soul,  Eloisa  to  Abelard,  and 
the  Elegy  to  the  Memory  of  an  Unfortunate  Lady.  But  his  in- 
ability so  to  express  himself  was  compensated  by,  and  may  even 
have  caused/  a  greater  complexity  of  attitude  and  of  subject  iftat- 
ter  in  his  satirical  and  didactic  poems  than  Dryden  ever  achieved 
in  any  single  work.  This  additional  complication  appears  to  be 
roughly  of  three  sorts:  the  illustration  of  the  general  with  a 
deeply  personal  allusion,  such  as  occurs  in  the  fine  couplets  on 
Gay  in  the  Epistle  to  Dr.  Arbuthnot;  the  intensification  of  the 
heroic  aspect  of  the  mock-heroic  passage,  till  it  takes  on,  as  does 
the  close  of  The  Dunciad,  a  kind  of  metaphysical  magnificence, 
an  intensity  of  terror  which  renders  the  satire  all  the  more  savage 
and  destructive;  and  the  statement  in  language  at  once  general, 
concentrated,  dignified,  and  pathetic  of  a  truth  both  tragic  and 
so  universal  as  to  be  wholly  impersonal. 

The  first  of  these  sources  of  complication,  the  introduction  of 
the  pathos  of  private  loss  or  of  self-justification,  is  roughly  the 
subject  matter  of  Churchill's  greatest  work,  though  Churchill's 
approach  differs  profoundly  from  that  of  Pope,  and  in  exploring 
this  particular  field  more  fully  than  did  Pope,  Churchill  in  one 
poem  all  but  equals  Pope's  brilliance  and  range.  The  magnifi- 


cence  of  the  mock-heroic  is  to  be  found  before  Pope,  in  Mac- 
Flecknoe,  especially  in  the  passage  which  parodies  Cowley's 
great  description  of  the  underwaters  of  the  sea,  which  occurs 
near  the  opening  of  his  Davideis,  but  the  mock-heroic  in  Dryden 
is  primarily  in  the  interests  of  hilarity.  Gay,  in  The  Birth  of  the 
Squire,  comes  closer  to  Pope  in  this  respect  than  does  anyone 
else,  but  with  this  difference:  Gay  has  wit  but  no  malice,  and 
almost  invariably  sympathizes  with  his  victim  and  at  moments 
appears  wholly  charmed  by  him,  with  the  result  that  his  pathos 
is  humorous  and  particular  rather  than  bare  and  universal.  The 
last  source  of  complication,  or  perhaps  one  should  say  the  last 
mode  in  which  Pope  forces  the  didactic-satiric  poem  to  invade 
lyrical  territory,  represents  nearly  the  sole  mode  in  which  Johnson 
attains  poetic  greatness,  and  the  mode  in  which  Goldsmith 
achieved  what  is  perhaps  his  only  moment  of  great  poetry, 

I  have  illustrated  the  first  and  second  of  these  classes  by  refer- 
ence to  familiar  passages.  Let  me  illustrate  the  last  by  quotation. 
Pope  writes  in  An  Essay  on  Man: 

Heav'n  forming  each  on  other  to  depend, 

A  master,  or  a  servant,  or  a  friend, 

Bids  each  on  other  for  assistance  call, 

Till  one  mans  weakness  grows  the  strength  of  all. 

Wants,  frailties,  passions,  closer  still  ally 

The  common  int'rest,  or  endear  the  tie. 

To  these  we  owe  true  friendship,  love  sincere, 

Each  home-felt  joy  that  life  inherits  here; 

Yet  from  the  same  we  learn,  in  its  decline, 

Those  joys,  those  loves,  those  interests  to  resign; 

Taught  half  by  Reason,  half  Toy  mere  decay, 

To  welcome  Death,  and  calmly  pass  away. 

It  is  this  kind  of  pathos  in  isolation  and  perhaps  more  profoundly 
felt  which  renders  memorable  The  Vanity  of  Human  Wishes 
and  more  particularly  Johnson's  two  great  prologues,  to  Comus 
and  to  A  Word  to  the  Wise.  It  is  this  kind  of  pathos  to  which 
Goldsmith  builds  in  a  few  brief  climactic  passages  in  The  De- 


serted  Village,  but  especially  in  the  following  couplets,  more 
famous,  perhaps,  in  our  own  age  for  what  may  appear  their 
democratic  morality  than  for  their  rhetorical  grandeur: 

111  fares  the  land,  to  hastening  ills  a  prey, 
Where  wealth  accumulates  and  men  decay; 
Princes  and  lords  may  flourish,  or  may  fade; 
A  breath  can  make  them,  as  a  breath  has  made; 
But  a  hold  peasantry,  their  country's  pride, 
When  once  destroyed  can  never  he  supplied. 

We  might  summarize  these  distinctions  thus:  Dryden  touches 
successfully  upon  a  wider  range  of  experience  than  does  Pope, 
and  employs  the  couplet  successfully  in  a  greater  variety  of  styles; 
but  Pope  through  the  concentration  of  his  entire  forces  upon  a 
single  method  achieves  a  greater  range  in  certain  individual 
poems  than  Dryden  ever  achieves  in  a  single  poem;  Pope  con- 
tains the  germs  of  all  the  masters  of  the  couplet  to  follow  him 
in  his  century  save  Crabbe,  and  all  of  them  save  Crabbe  achieve 
greatness  by^developing  some  one  aspect  of  feeling  to  be  found  in 
Pope;  Johnson,  nevertheless,  attains  a  greatness,  even  a  universal- 
ity, in  a  few  poems,  which  appears  scarcely  inferior  to  Pope, 
chiefly  by  virtue  of  the  way  in  which  the  dignity  and  grandeur  of 
his  character,  his  curious  combination  of  private  bitterness,  pub- 
lic generosity,  and  Christian  humility  qualify  his  apprehension 
of  relatively  simple  themes.  It  should  be  noted  also,  that  if  Dry- 
den employs  the  couplet  for  a  wide  diversity  of  ends,  by  means  of 
small  variations,  Pope,  in  combining  a  comparable  diversity  into 
a  single  complexity,  varies  the  couplet  noticeably  less  than  does 
Dryden;  yet  he  is  successful,  to  the  reader  familiar  with  his  sensi- 
bility he  is  one  of  the  most  exquisitely  finished,  as  well  as  one  of 
the  most  profoundly  moving,  poets  in  English.  Churchill  I  re- 
serve for  detailed  treatment.  He  is  the  most  radical  innovator  in 
the  history  of  the  couplet,  and  by  means  of  his  innovations  he 
uncovered  a  range  of  feeling,  and  created  a  poetry,  as  complex  in 
their  way,  perhaps,  as  those  of  Pope,  though  he  lived  to  master 
his  discoveries  in  one  poem  only. 


Churchill's  early  work  contributes  nothing  of  importance  to 
the  development  of  heroic  verse:  it  is  frequently  good— the  man- 
nerisms described  in  The  Rosciad  are  amusing,  though  little 
more— but  it  attempts  nothing  that  Dryden  had  not  already  ac- 
complished with  greater  brilliancy. 

The  Candidate,  however,  introduces  a  new  procedure  and  a 
new  quality  of  feeling  into  satirical  verse,  and  the  very  structure 
of  the  poem  forces  one  to  study  the  innovation  if  one  is  not  to 
remain,  as  a  reader  of  it,  suspended  in  ambiguity.  The  poem 
is  directed  against  Lord  Sandwich,  who  sought  the  Highsteward- 
ship  of  Cambridge,  in  spite  of  his  notoriously  licentious  and  un- 
scholarly  career.  The  poem,  after  various  preliminaries,  gives  us 
a  portrait  of  Lothario,  a  kind  of  ideal  rake,  whose  identity  is  not 
given,  but  who  is  really  Sandwich  in  disguise.  At  the  conclusion 
of  this  portrait,  the  poet  informs  us  that  Nature,  aghast  at  having 
created  such  a  monster,  by  way  of  atonement  gave  us  Sandwich, 
too.  There  follows  a  long  account  of  Sandwich  under  his  own 
name,  an  account  which  has  at  the  outset  all  the  appearance  of 
the  warmest  eulogy;  as  one  proceeds,  one  gradually  begins  to 
feel  the  undertone  of  irony,  an  undertone  which  becomes  more 
and  more  evident,  until,  after  several  pages,  Sandwich  and  his 
friends  are  being  openly  pilloried.  This  sort  of  thing,  to  the  best 
of  my  knowledge,  had  never  been  done  before;  and  to  the  best 
of  my  knowledge  no  one  has  ever  pointed  out  that  Churchill  did 
it;  Churchill,  like  Gascoigne  at  an  earlier  period  and  like  Johnson 
in  his  own,  was  a  great  master  obscured  by  history,  that  is,  by 
the  mummification,  for  purposes  of  immortal  exhibition,  of  a 
current  fashion— Gray  and  Collins,  slighter  poets  in  spite  of  all 
their  virtues,  were  of  the  party  that  produced  the  style  of  the 
next  century  and  they  have  come  to  be  regarded,  for  this  reason, 
as  the  best  poets  of  their  period.  We  have  not  in  The  Candidate 
the  mock-heroic  convention  of  MacFlecknoe  or  of  Hudibras, 
which,  though  it  involves  feigned  praise,  is  frank  burlesque.  It 
is  closer  to  a  quality  of  Pope,  to  which  I  have  already  referred, 
but  it  is  ironical  rather  than  epigrammatical;  it  is  more  evasive, 
less  didactic  or  illustrative  of  the  general,  more  personal,  closer 
to  the  sophisticated  lyrical  tradition  of  such  writers  as  Gascoigne, 


Ben  Jonson,  and  Donne.  Churchill,  in  his  ambiguous  territory 
between  irony  and  eulogy,  awakened  a  number  of  feelings  be- 
longing neither  to  irony  nor  to  eulogy,  but  capable  of  joining 
with  both,  and  the  most  perfect  example  of  the  junction  may  be 
found  in  his  greatest  poem,  the  posthumous  Dedication  to  War- 
burton.  The  poem  opens  thus: 

Health  to  great  Glo'sterl—from  a  man  unknown, 
Who  holds  thy  health  as  dearly  as  his  own, 
Accept  this  greeting— nor  let  modest  fear 
Call  up  one  maiden  blush— I  mean  not  here 
To  wound  with  flattery;  'tis  a  villains  art, 
And  suits  not  with  the  frankness  of  my  heart. 
Truth  best  becomes  an  orthodox  divine, 
And,  spite  of  Hell,  that  character  is  mine: 
To  speak  e'en  hitter  truths  I  cannot  fear; 
But  truth,  my  lord,  is  panegyric  here. 

Health  to  great  Glo'sterl—nor,  through  love  of  ease, 
Which  all  priests  love,  let  this  address  displease. 
1  ask  no  favor,  not  one  note  I  crave, 
And  when  this  busy  brain  rests  in  the  grave, 
(For  till  that  time  it  never  can  have  rest) 
I  will  not  trouble  you  with  one  bequest. 
Some  humbler  friend,  my  mortal  journey  done, 
More  near  in  blood,  a  nephew  or  a  son, 
In  that  dread  hour  executor  I'll  leave, 
For  1,  alas!  have  many  to  receive; 
To  give,  but  little.— To  great  Glo'ster  health! 
Nor  let  thy  true  and  proper  love  of  wealth 
Here  take  a  false  alarm—in  purse  though  poor, 
In  spirit  I'm  right  proud,  nor  can  endure 
The  mention  of  a  bribe— thy  pocket's  free. 

The  feeling,  and,  as  I  have  said,  it  is  a  new  kind  of  feeling,  is 
deeply  involved  in  the  rhythms,  especially  in  the  relationship  of 
syntax  to  versification.  The  long  and  involved  sentence,  with  its 
numerous  parenthetical  interruptions,  hesitations,  and  after- 

thoughts,  is  foreign  to  the  other  masters  of  the  couplet.  It  appears 
in  Churchill's  earlier  work  in  a  crude  form,  but  here  it  carries  as 
high  a  polish  as  anything  in  Pope.  The  style  is  more  different 
from  Dryden,  Pope,  Gay,  or  Johnson  than  they  are  from  each 
other,  and  it  is  probably  a  more  complex  style  than  any  one  of 
them  ever  achieved,  though  all  of  them  are  sufficiently  complex, 
Pope  and  Johnson  especially  so;  Churchill  does  not,  as  did  Dry- 
den,  vary  the  epigrammatic  norm  of  the  familiar  couplet,  but  he 
established  a  different  norm,  from  which  he  can,  by  means  of 
suggestion,  utilize  the  norm  of  Pope  much  as  Dryden  and  Cra- 
shaw  utilized  the  song-books,  at  the  same  time  that  he  is  engaged 
in  arriving  at  a  very  different  end.  His  poetry  is  one  of  profound 
and  bitter  innuendo. 

The  heroic  couplet  must  have  certain  qualities  which  enable 
the  poet  employing  it  to  pass  easily  from  description,  to  lyricism, 
to  didacticism,  to  satire,  and  so  on,  or  even  at  times  to  combine 
several  of  these  qualities  at  a  single  stroke.  It  is  doubtful  whether 
so  much  freedom  is  possible  in  blank  verse;  the  only  satirical  poet 
who  has  employed  blank  verse  with  major  success  is  Ben  Jonson, 
and  much  of  his  satire  depends  upon  significance  derived  from 
the  structure  of  the  play— the  details  from  line  to  line  are  usually 
variations  upon  an  anterior  theme  rather  than  autonomous  sum- 
maries. Ben  Jonson  himself  employed  the  heroic  couplet  in  some 
of  his  shorter  poems,  when  he  wished  to  indulge  in  a  more  direct 
and  concentrated  attack,  and  with  remarkable  vigor,  in  spite  of 
the  roughness  of  his  versification.  As  a  didactic  instrument,  blank 
verse  is  comparatively  heavy  and  comparatively  incapable  of 
epigrammatic  point;  as  a  lyrical  instrument,  the  range  of  blank 
verse,  though  wide,  tends  to  be  more  closely  limited  to  the  gran- 
diloquent and  is  less  capable  (in  spite  of  charming  passages  in 
Fletcher  and  of  Tears  Idle  Tears)  of  approaching  the  flexibility 
and  variety  of  song.  The  heroic  couplet,  all  things  considered, 
appears  to  be  the  most  flexible  of  forms:  it  can  suggest  by  discreet 
imitation,  the  effects  of  nearly  any  other  technique  conceivable; 
it  can  contain  all  of  these  effects,  if  need  be,  in  a  single  poem. 

What,  then,  makes  the  couplet  so  flexible?  The  answer  can  be 
given  briefly:  its  seeming  inflexibility.  That  is,  the  identity  of  the 


line  is  stronger  in  rhymed  verse  than  in  unrhymed,  because  a 
bell  is  rung  at  the  end  of  every  second  line;  the  identity  of  the 
line  will  be  stronger  in  the  couplet  than  in  any  other  stanza  be- 
cause the  couplet  is  the  simplest  and  most  obvious  form  of  stanza 
possible.  This  mathematical  and  almost  mechanical  recurrence  of 
line  and  stanza  provides  an  obvious  substructure  and  core  of 
connotation  over  which  poetic  variations  may  move,  from  which 
they  derive  an  exact  identity.  There  is,  in  addition,  a  norm  within 
the  norm,  at  least  in  the  case  of  every  master  save  Churchill,  the 
norm  of  the  Popian  couplet;  and  even  Churchill  can  refer  to  this 
norm  from  a  distance. 

In  spite  of  this  regularity  of  basic  scheme,  there  is  no  confine- 
ment of  variation.  The  secondary  rhythmic  relationships  of  the 
couplet  are  unhampered  by  the  rigidity  of  the  primary,  and  the 
resultant  set  of  relationships  (the  tertiary)  between  the  constant 
element  and  the  varying  element,  will  be  therefore  unlimited,  at 
the  same  time,  however,  that  the  constant  element  is  providing  a 
permanent  point  of  reference,  or  feeling  of  cohesion,  for  the 
whole.  The  poet  may  move  in  any  direction  whatever,  and  his 
movement  will  be  almost  automatically  graduated  by  the  metro- 
nomic undercurrent  of  regularity;  and  if  he  chooses  at  certain 
times  to  devote  himself  to  prosaic  explanation,  the  metronome 
and  the  Popian  balance,  emerging  naked,  are  capable  of  giving 
his  prose  an  incisiveness  possible  in  no  other  form,  and  of  main- 
taining the  relationship  of  the  didacticism  to  the  rest  of  the  poem 
—the  relationship  in  regard  to  feeling,  I  mean,  for  a  didactic  pas- 
sage would  of  necessity  represent  by  explicit  statement  the  ra- 
tional relationships  within  the  poem. 

A  longer  stanza  is  likely  to  be  tyrannical.  Within  a  single  Spen- 
serian stanza,  for  example,  one  cannot  gracefully  abandon  a 
thought  and  take  up  another,  nor  can  one  let  a  thought  run  over 
a  large  number  of  stanzas.  In  the  couplet  we  may  have  an  en- 
tirely free  play  of  thought  over  a  rigid  metrical  substructure;  in 
the  longer  stanza,  thought  and  stanzaic  structure  must,  very 
largely,  coincide.  To  state  it  otherwise,  in  the  long  stanza  the 
varying  and  constant  elements  which  have  already  been  men- 
tioned in  connection  with  heroic  verse  tend  to  fuse  in  a  single 

movement,  which,  if  protracted,  becomes  monotonous;  whereas 
the  poet  employing  couplets  and  employing  at  the  same  time  a 
sufficiently  comprehensive  plot  or  frame,  could  move  at  will 
through  all  the  complexities  of  Churchill  and  through  all  the 
pure  and  isolated  moods  to  be  found  in  Dryden— it  would  be 
largely  a  matter  of  timing. 

Such  a  form,  it  seems  to  me,  is  the  desideratum  of  those  poets, 
who,  following  more  or  less  in  the  wake  of  Mr.  Eliot,  have  en- 
deavored to  employ  a  more  or  less  Websterian  verse  as  a  carry-all 
meter.  Websterian  verse  is  much  looser  than  good  free  verse:  by 
Websterian  verse,  I  mean  that  kind  of  blank  verse  which  has 
been  so  named  in  our  time,  the  loose  blank  verse  of  the  speeches 
of  Bosola,  of  Mr.  T.  S.  Eliot's  Gerontion,  and  of  Mr.  Archibald 
MacLeish.  In  nearly  all  verse  of  this  kind,  the  sense  of  the  blank 
verse  norm  is  feeble;  the  substitution  of  feet  becomes  meaning- 
less because  there  is  so  much  of  it;  there  is  no  care  for  the  distri- 
bution of  secondary  accents  or  lesser  syllables;  and  there  is  no 
basic  regularity  which  can  be  made  to  support  didactic  or  other 
linking  passages  when  they  are  necessary,  for  the  Websterian 
poet  simply  does  not  dare  to  revert  over  the  long  distance  to 
formal  blank  verse,  for  fear  of  destroying  the  cohesion  of  his 

This  last  weakness  means  that  necessary  connecting  links  are 
evaded,  and  the  evasion  has  at  least  two  consequences  of  its  own: 
first,  the  poetry,  in  so  far  as  it  needs  logical  linking,  tends  to 
break  down  into  lyrical  fragments,  as  in  The  Waste  Land?  and, 
second,  the  didacticism,  not  being  properly  accounted  for,  is 
likely  to  edge  into  passages  where  it  does  not  belong,  and  in  a 
fragmentary  and  unsatisfactory  form,  frequently  in  the  evasive 
and  indeterminable  form  which  I  have  described  at  length  in 
another  essay  under  the  name  of  pseudo-reference.  This  frag- 
mentary didacticism  is  unsatisfactory,  because  the  poems  I  have 
in  mind— The  Waste  Land,  and  Allen  Tate's  Causerie,™  and 
Retroduction  to  American  History11— are  fundamentally  exposi- 

9  Poems  1909-25,  by  T.  S.  Eliot,  Faber  and  Gwyon,  London. 

10  Poems  1928-31,  by  Allen  Tate,  Scribners,  1932. 

11  Mr.  Pope  and  Other  Poems,  by  Allen  Tate,  Minton  Balch,  N.  Y.,  1928. 

tory  poems,  akin  to  the  expository  poems  of  Pope  and  Dryden, 
in  that  they  endeavor  to  give  a  summary  of  a  contemporary  view 
of  life  and  a  criticism  of  such  a  view. 

To  say  that  a  poet  is  justified  in  employing  a  disintegrating 
form  in  order  to  express  a  feeling  of  disintegration,  is  merely  a 
sophistical  justification  of  bad  poetry,  akin  to  the  Whitmanian 
notion  that  one  must  write  loose  and  sprawling  poetry  to  "ex- 
press" the  loose  and  sprawling  American  continent.  In  fact,  all 
feeling,  if  one  gives  oneself  (that  is,  one's  form)  up  to  it,  is  a 
way  of  disintegration;  poetic  form  is  by  definition  a  means  to 
arrest  the  disintegration  and  order  the  feeling;  and  in  so  far  as 
any  poetry  tends  toward  the  formless,  it  fails  to  be  expressive  of 

Mr.  Tate's  Causerie  embodies  social  criticism  and  moral  in- 
dignation, two  traditionally  didactic-satiric  themes: 

The  essential  wreckage  of  your  age  is  different, 

The  accident  the  same;  the  Annabella 

Of  proper  incest,  no  longer  incestuous; 

In  an  age  of  abstract  experience,  fornication 

Is  self -expression,  adjunct  to  Christian  euphoria, 

And  whores  become  delinquents;  delinquents,  patients; 

Patients,  -wards  of  society.  Whores,  by  that  rule, 

Are  precious. 

Was  it  for  this  that  Lucius 
Became  the  ass  of  Thessaly?  For  this  did  Kyd 
Unlock  the  lion  of  passion  on  his  stage? 
To  litter  a  race  of  politic  pimps?  To  glut 
The  Capitol  with  the  progeny  of  ostlers, 
Where  now  the  antique  courtesy  of  your  myths 
Goes  in  to  sleep  under  a  still  shadow? 

Compared  to  any  modern  satirical  or  ironical  verse,  the  passage 
is  vigorous;  compared  to  the  passage  from  Churchill,  it  wants 
finish.  Yet  it  is  in  a  sense  more  serious  than  Churchill,  for  it  has 

wider  implications  and  rests  upon  wider  and  more  careful 

The  poet  who  has  made  the  most  ambitious  attempt  of  our 
century  to  create  a  carry-all  form  is  Ezra  Pound,  but  his  free 
verse,  though  the  best  of  it  is  better  meter  than  any  of  the  neo- 
Websterian  verse,  remains  in  spite  of  his  efforts  a  lyrical  instru- 
ment which  is  improperly  used  for  other  than  lyrical  effects. 

As  in  all  free  verse,  and  as  in  Websterian  verse,  we  have  in 
Mr.  Pound's  verse  no  normal  foot,  nothing  to  take  the  place  of 
the  couplet's  basic  regularity,  no  substructure  insisting  steadily  on 
the  identity  of  the  poem,  regardless  of  whither  it  wander.  The 
meter,  as  in  nearly  all  free  verse,  is  wholly  at  one  with  the  mood, 
and  if  the  mood  undergoes  a  marked  change,  the  whole  poem 
goes  off  with  it  and  becomes  incoherent.  Purely  didactic  poetry  is 
impossible  in  the  form,  because  of  the  chanting,  emotional  quality 
of  the  rhythms,  from  which  there  is  no  escape,  even  momen- 
tarily: the  rhythm  implies  a  limited  lyrical  mood. 

Unlike  the  Websterians,  Mr.  Pound  in  his  best  Cantos  does 
not  muddy  his  verse  with  secondary  and  uncontrolled  didacti- 
cism: he  is  usually  didactic,  if  at  all,  by  implication  only,  but  im- 
plication is  inadequate,  in  the  long  run,  as  a  didactic  instrument. 
In  the  best  Cantos,12  at  least,  Mr.  Pound  is  successful,  whether  in 
fragments  or  on  the  whole,  but  he  presents  merely  a  psychologi- 
cal progression  or  flux,  the  convention  being  sometimes  that  of 
wandering  revery,  sometimes  that  of  wandering  conversation. 
The  range  of  such  a  convention  is  narrowly  limited,  not  only  as 
regards  formulable  content,  but  as  regards  feeling.  The  feelings 
attendant  upon  revery  and  amiable  conversation  tend  to  great 
similarity  notwithstanding  the  subject  matter,  and  they  simply 
are  not  the  most  vigorous  or  important  feelings  of  which  the 
human  being  is  capable. 

The  method,  when  employed  in  satirical  portraiture,  lacks  the 
incisiveness  of  the  eighteenth  century  masters: 

So  we  left  him  at  last  in  Chi'dsso 
Along  with  the  old  w'dman  from  Kansas, 

13  A  Draft  of  Thirty  Cantos,  by  Ezra  Pound.  Hours  Press:  Paris:  1932. 

*  S6lid  Kansas,  her  daughter  had  married  that  Swiss 
Who  kept  the  Buffet  in  ChiZsso. 

Did  it  shake  her?  It  di'd  not  shake  her. 

She  sat  there  in  the  waiting  room,  sdlid  Kansas, 

*  Stiff  as  a  cigar  store  Indian  from  the  Bowery 
Such  as  6ne  saw  in  the  nineties, 

First  sod  of  bleeding  Kansas 

That  had  produced  this  ligneous  solidness. 

*  If  thou  wilt  go  to  Chiasso  wilt  find  that  indestructible  female 
As  if  waiting  for  the  train  to  Top'eka. 

The  passage  is  amusing  in  a  way,  but  is  soft  and  diffuse.  Even 
The  Rosciad  affords  more  successful  portraits.  Notwithstanding 
the  concreteness  of  the  material,  the  meter  is  already  outside  the 
range  in  which  it  functions  most  effectively— the  range,  that  is, 
of  the  fourth  or  of  the  seventh  Canto.  The  meter  is  naturally 
elegiac,  and  the  handling  of  it  in  such  a  passage  as  this  is  bound 
to  be  arbitrary  and  insensitive:  the  secondary  accents  fall  acci- 
dentally, are.%hard  to  identify,  and  are  neither  perceptive  nor 
intrinsically  pleasing  as  sound,  and  so  little  attention  is  paid  to 
shadings  of  quantity  as  to  render  the  passage  very  awkward  of 
movement.  These  defects  in  general  are  the  defects  of  Mr. 
Pound's  style,  though  in  many  passages  they  are  far  less  evident 
than  here.  Like  Swinburne,  he  has  acquired  an  undeserved  repu- 
tation for  metrical  mastery,  largely  as  a  result  of  a  fairly  suave 
manipulation  of  certain  insistently  recurring  mannerisms,  which, 
to  the  half-trained  or  the  half-alert,  appear  signs  of  finish  and 
control  rather  than  what  they  are,  the  signs  of  a  measure  of  in- 
certitude and  of  insensitivity. 

Mr.  Pound  has  come  no  closer  than  Mr.  Tate  to  creating  a 
carry-all  meter,  but  in  his  efforts  he  has  sometimes  created  a  purer 
poetry  than  has  Mr.  Tate  while  indulging  in  strictly  similar 
efforts,  chiefly,  perhaps,  because  Mr.  Pound  has  not  been  aware 
of  comparably  difficult  material. 

The  Testament  of  Beauty,  by  Robert  Bridges,  offers  one  other 
experiment  toward  a  carry-all  form,  which  I  should  like,  but  am 
unable,  to  admire.  The  form  is  unrhymed  duodecasyllabics,  de- 

pendent  for  their  existence  as  such  upon  a  definite  and  reason- 
ably workable  system  of  elision,  a  form  which  Bridges  calls 
syllabic  hexameter  or  Alexandrin  verse.  The  form,  as  I  under- 
stand it,  evolved  roughly  in  this  fashion:  through  Bridges'  failure 
to  recognize  the  principle  of  varying  accent  and  the  law  of  the 
identification  of  accent,  as  I  gave  them  early  in  this  essay,  Bridges 
came  to  regard  standard  English  verse  as  fundamentally  syllabic, 
but  hampered  by  certain  other  half -observed  rules;  the  details  of 

this  notion  he  worked  out  in  his  metrical  studv  entitled  Milton's 


Prosody.  In  Samson  Agonistes,  he  found  certain  twelve-syllable 
lines,  which  in  nearly  every  case  I  should  be  inclined  to  read  as 
violent  aberrations  from  iambic  pentameter,  but  which  Bridges, 
since  he  had  a  predisposition  in  favor  of  the  syllable-count  as  the 
basis  of  the  measure,  read  as  Alexandrins.  On  the  basis  of  these 
violent  and  impassioned  lines,  lines  whose  metrical  force,  as  far 
as  I  can  feel  them,  resides  in  a  terrible  struggle  with  the  iambic 
pentameter  norm,  a  struggle  comparable  at  moments  to  the 
struggle  of  Samson  with  the  pillars,  save  that  in  this  instance  the 
pillars  do  not,  I  believe,  quite  yield,  Bridges  constructed  an  un- 
rhymed  syllabic  hexameter,  in  which  the  accents  follow  no  law 
save  that  of  variation,  and  employed  it  in  a  long  expository  poem 
conceived,  like  most  didactic  poetry,  at  a  low  and  calm  level  of 
feeling.  The  Miltonic  struggle  was  eliminated,  and  had  it  re- 
mained it  would  have  been  highly  improper  in  conjunction  with 
the  subject-matter;  but  so  also  was  the  Miltonic  form  eliminated. 
The  meter  suffers  from  one  of  the  two  basic  defects  of  free  verse: 
there  is  not,  as  there  is  in  free  verse,  a  limit  to  the  variability  of 
accent,  but  there  is,  as  in  free  verse,  no  norm  as  the  basis  of  varia- 
tion, so  that  syllables  within  the  line  are  loose  and  shuffling, 
though  usually,  by  means  of  a  little  arbitrary  classification  one 
can  scan  the  lines  accentually.  The  result  is  a  meter  as  invariably 
monotonous  as  that  of  Orm,  and  the  reason  for  the  monotony  is 
the  same :  regardless  whether  one  attempts  to  scan  the  line  accen- 
tually, or  whether  one  follows  Bridges  and  scans  it  syllabically 
(by  all  odds  the  preferable  procedure),  it  successfully  avoids  the 
accentual-syllabic,  avoids,  that  is,  any  pattern  or  norm  underlying 
every  syllable,  so  that,  though  one  has  constant  change  of  move- 


ment  from  moment  to  moment,  one  has  no  variation,  no  precision 
of  intention.  It  has  certain  advantages,  possibly,  for  the  purpose 
to  which  it  is  put  in  the  Testament  of  Beauty  over  the  heavily 
accented  meter  of  Pound:  its  very  monotony  gives  it  a  certain 
coherence,  the  coherence,  however,  merely  of  undefined  inten- 
tion, yet  its  freedom  from  the  constant  recurrence  of  the  heavy 
measuring  accent  does  not  commit  it  so  closely  to  a  particular 
range  of  feeling;  but  if  Pound's  best  Cantos,  the  first  six  or  seven, 
are  considered,  the  meter  of  Bridges  is  far  less  interesting  in  itself. 
This  is  curious,  for  Bridges,  in  general,  is  incomparably  the  better 
poet  and  the  better  metrist. 

Bridges*  syllables,  as  employed  by  himself  and  by  his  daughter, 
Elizabeth  Daryush,  resemble  free  verse  in  certain  other  respects: 
they  are  more  amenable  to  treatment  if  rhymed  than  if  un- 
rhymed,  just  as  the  double-accentual  poems  of  Hopkins  are  firmer 
metrically  than  any  of  the  unrhymed  free  verse  of  the  Ameri- 
cans; and  they  are  more  likely  to  succeed  in  a  short  poem  than  in 
a  long,  for  in  the  former  the  possibilities  inherent  in  the  various 
dispositions  of  Accent  can  be  more  or  less  nearly  exhausted  with- 
out being  repeated.  Mrs.  Daryush  has  been  more  successful,  in 
my  estimation,  in  writing  syllabics,  than  was  her  father,  though 
her  greatest  work,  like  that  of  her  father,  has  been  in  the  tradi- 
tional meters.  The  following  sonnet,  entitled  Still-Life,  is  one  of 
her  finest  syllabic  experiments: 

Through  the  open  French  window  the  warm  sun 
lights  up  the  polished  breakfast-table,  laid 
round  a  bowl  of  crimson  roses,  for  one— 
a  service  of  Worcester  porcelain,  arrayed 
near  it  a  melon,  peaches,  figs,  small  hot 
rolls  in  a  napkin,  fairy  rack  of  toast, 
butter  in  ice,  high  silver  coffee-pot, 
and,  heaped  on  a  salver,  the  mornings  post. 
She  comes  over  the  lawn,  the  young  heiress, 
from  her  early  walk  in  her  garden-wood, 
feeling  that  life's  a  table  set  to  bless 
her  delicate  desires  with  all  that's  good, 

that  even  the  unopened  future  lies 
like  a  love-letter,  full  of  sweet  surprise. 

One  imagines  that  the  medium  could  not  be  used  with  greater 
beauty  than  in  this  poem;  there  is  certainly  nothing  in  the  work 
of  the  American  masters  of  free  verse  to  surpass  it,  and  there  is 
little  to  equal  it.  Yet  like  the  best  free  verse,  it  lacks  the  final 
precision  and  power,  the  flexibility  of  suggestion,  of  the  best 
work  in  accentual-syllabics,  in  which  every  syllable  stands  in 
relationship  to  a  definite  norm. 

But  I  must  now  summarize  my  position  in  general  terms.  The 
sum  total  of  the  metrical  virtues  is  necessary  to  didactic  verse  or 
to  any  sort  of  long  poem,  and  is  a  profound  advantage  even  to  the 
shortest  lyric.  The  sum  total  may  be  described  briefly  as  follows: 
coherence  of  movement,  variety  of  movement,  and  fine  percep- 
tivity. These  virtues  can  occur  in  conjunction  only  in  a  system  in 
which  every  detail  is  accounted  for.  That  is,  if  the  system  is  based 
(as  English  verse  is  normally  based)  on  accent,  then  every  syl- 
lable must  be  recognizably  in  or  out  of  place  whether  stressed  or 
not,  and  if  out  of  place  in  a  classifiable  way;  the  degree  of  accent 
must  vary  perceptibly  though  immeasurably  from  a  perceptible 
though  immeasurable  norm;  quantity  should  be  used  consciously 
to  qualify  these  conditions;  in  brief,  the  full  sound-value  of  every 
syllable  must  be  willed  for  a  particular  end,  and  must  be  precise 
in  the  attainment  of  that  end.  As  language  has  other  values  than 
those  of  sound,  this  ideal  will  be  always  forced  into  some  measure 
of  compromise  with  the  other  values;  nevertheless,  the  essence  of 
art,  I  take  it,  is  that  no  compromise  should  be  very  marked,  and  the 
perfection  of  art,  though  rare  and  difficult,  is  not  unattainable.  In 
a  system  such  as  English  syllabics,  or  as  free  verse,  most  or  all  of 
the  individual  syllables  can  have  no  definite  relationship  to  the 
pattern;  so  that  there  is  no  exact  basis  for  judging  them,  and  they 
are,  when  chosen,  relatively  without  meaning. 

Traditional  meter,  then,  like  the  other  aspects  of  traditional 
convention  which  I  have  discussed  in  other  essays,  tends  to  ex- 
ploit the  full  possibilities  of  language;  experimental  meter,  like 
other  aspects  of  experimental  convention,  is  incomplete.  To  push 


the  analogy  farther,  experimental  conventions  in  general  tend  to 
abandon  comprehensible  motive,  to  resort  to  unguided  feeling; 
similarly  experimental  meter  loses  the  rational  frame  which  alone 
gives  its  variations  the  precision  of  true  perception.  Or  to  put  it 
another  way:  as  traditional  poetry  in  general  aims  to  adjust  feel- 
ing rightly  to  motive,  it  needs  the  most  precise  instrument  pos- 
sible for  the  rendering  of  feeling,  and  so  far  as  meter  is  concerned, 
this  instrument  will  be  traditional  meter.  Further,  as  traditional 
poetry  tends  to  enrich  itself  with  past  wisdom,  with  an  acquired 
sense  of  what  is  just,  so  the  traditional  meters,  owing  to  their  very 
subtle  adjustibility  and  suggestibility,  are  frequently  very  com- 
plex in  their  effects,  whereas  the  looser  meters  tend  to  be  over- 
emphatic  and  over-simple. 

It  will  be  seen  that  what  I  desire  of  a  poem  is  a  clear  under- 
standing of  motive,  and  a  just  evaluation  of  feeling;  the  justice 
of  the  evaluation  persisting  even  into  the  sound  of  the  least  im- 
portant syllable.  Such  a  poem  is  a  perfect  and  complete  act  of  the 
spirit;  it  calls  upon  the  full  life  of  the  spirit;  it  is  difficult  of  at- 
tainment, but  I  am  aware  of  no  good  reason  to  be  contented  with 


Maule's  Curse 




DURING  THE  YEAR  1937, 1  published  through  the  Arrow  Editions 
in  New  York  City  a  volume  of  criticism  entitled  Primitivism  and 
Decadence;  this  book  is  a  study  of  the  technical  forms  taken  by 
American  Experimental  Poetry  during  the  twentieth  century- 
it  is  a  study  very  largely  of  the  forms  of  unconscious  and  of  con- 
scious obscurantism  which  are  the  ultimate  development  of  Ro- 
mantic aesthetic  principles  qualified  to  a  greater  or  smaller  extent 
by  certain  aspects  of  American  history.  Had  I  required  any  fur- 
ther proof  of  the  essential  confusion  of  the  literary  mind  of  our 
period,  the  reception  met  by  this  book  would  have  more  than 
satisfied  me.  Its  contents  were  described  with  placid  and  painstak- 
ing inaccuracy  by  many  reviewers,  with  bitterly  excited  inaccu- 
racy by  others;  it  was  attacked  for  opinions  which  it  did  not  main- 
tain or  even  suggest.  But  above  all,  it  was  attacked  because  it 
pointed  to  the  dangers  inherent  in  obscurantism,  and  because  it 
found  obscurity  where  the  reviewer  found  none. 

The  subject  of  my  reception  by  certain  reviewers  is  not  one  of 
great  general  interest,  but  one  series  of  incidents  in  connection 
with  these  reviews  perhaps  transcends  that  subject  and  has  a  cer- 
tain theoretic  interest.  In  discussing  a  passage  quoted  from  the 
opening  of  Hart  Craned  poem,  For  the  Marriage  of  Faustus  and 
Helen,  I  complained  of  the  obscurity  of  the  lines  beginning, 
"Numbers  rebuffed  by  asphalt/'  and  said  that  the  numbers  might 
refer  to  numbers  of  people  or  to  the  mathematical  abstractions  of 
modern  life,  but  that  either  interpretation  left  the  passage  imper- 
fectly comprehensible.  Now  I  was  wrong,  and  in  justice  to 
Crane,  I  ought  to  correct  the  error.  The  numbers  in  question  re- 


fer  to  the  sparrows'  wings  in  the  preceding  line,  and  by  extension, 
to  the  sparrows,  and  with  this  understanding  the  passage  is  per- 
fectly clear.  Crane  is  in  a  good  measure  to  blame  for  the  difficulty, 
for  the  grammatical  reference  here  and  throughout  the  poem  is 
of  the  loosest,  and  as  one  of  my  reviewers,  to  whom  I  shall  refer 
in  a  moment,  pointed  out,  there  are  elements  in  the  passage  that 
actively  support  the  second  interpretation  and  that  would  no 
doubt  be  a  sufficient  justification  of  the  second  interpretation  if 
that  interpretation  clarified  the  passage  within  itself.  My  error 
does  not,  I  believe,  invalidate  my  general  criticism  of  Crane,  for 
the  type  of  obscurity  which  I  mistakenly  found  in  this  passage 
is  certainly  to  be  found  elsewhere  in  Crane,  though  commonly  in 
shorter  fragments,  and  I  see  no  reason  to  believe  that  I  was  mis- 
taken in  regard  to  other  passages  which  I  found  obscure. 

So  much,  however,  for  justice  to  Crane  and  to  myself;  it  is 
something  else  that  concerns  me  primarily.  A  well-known  re- 
viewer for  a  certain  journal  of  advanced  political  and  economic 
theory,  who  attacked  my  book,  or  rather  who  attacked  me  per- 
sonally, in  terms  the  most  irresponsible  and  scurrilous,  and  who 
even  ventured*  to  accuse  me  of  insanity  because  I  objected  up  to 
a  certain  point  to  incoherent  poetry,  stated  in  private  to  one  of 
my  friends,  Mr.  Don  Stanford,  that  the  numbers  in  question 
were  numbers  of  people,  and  that  the  passage  was  perfectly  clear; 
he  did  not,  however,  risk  any  interpretation  of  this  passage  or  of 
any  other  in  print,  and  thus  displayed  a  caution  common  to  prac- 
tically all  of  my  critics.  On  the  other  hand,  a  more  friendly  re- 
viewer, in  the  Southern  Review,  displayed  something  of  my  own 
naivet£,  and  exposed  himself  lamentably.  He  asserted  that  this 
passage  was  sufficiently  clear,  and  that  the  numbers  were  the 
mathematical  abstractions  of  modern  life,  and  that  the  lines  a 
little  preceding,  which  deal  with  baseball  scores,  stock  quotations, 
and  similar  items  support  this  interpretation;  and  that  they  do 
support  the  interpretation  I  believe  to  be  true,  but  they  do  not 
clarify  it.  He  then  rather  curiously  and  not  quite  coherently 
added  a  defense  of  the  kind  of  obscurity  to  be  found  in  this  pas- 
sage.' The  defense  in  itself  was  ingenious  and  admirable;  it  was 
borrowed  without  acknowledgment  from  the  last  three  pages  of 


the  third  essay  in  my  book  under  review,  pages  in  which  the 
reader  who  is  curious  may  find  likewise  an  even  more  valuable 
answer  to  the  defense. 

But  here  were  two  writers  who  found  the  passage  clear  enough 
for  each  of  them,  and  who  were  even  a  trifle  contemptuous  about 
the  whole  matter,  yet  who  disagreed  with  each  other  as  to  what 
the  passage  meant.  One  of  them  must  be  wrong,  and  if  the  disin- 
terested reader  will  consider  the  passage  in  the  light  of  the  new 
interpretation  which  I  have  offered,  I  think  he  will  agree  that 
both  are  wrong.  The  passage,  then,  is  unquestionably  on  record 
as  exactly  the  sort  of  obscurantism  which  I  asserted  it  to  repre- 
sent, although  it  is  not  Crane,  in  this  particular  passage,  who  is 
guilty,  but  two  of  his  admirers.  Crane  obviously  will  gain  little 
from  the  sort  of  defense  which  they  offered  him,  nor  will  litera- 
ture in  general  profit  from  the  state  of  mind  which  led  to  it. 

The  present  volume  is  an  attempt  to  trace  some  of  the  earlier 
aspects  of  this  state  of  mind  in  America,  to  suggest  at  least  a  part 
of  the  outline  of  a  history  of  this  state  of  mind.  In  so  far  as  this 
history  is  merely  a  history  of  the  international  romantic  move- 
ment, it  is  probably  fairly  well  understood,  at  least  in  general 
terms;  in  so  far  as  it  is  merely  a  history  of  American  religious  and 
other  ideas  and  attitudes,  it  has  been  well  treated  by  other  writers, 
to  many  of  whom  I  shall  refer  in  the  essays  to  follow.  The  re- 
lationship of  the  history  of  ideas  to  the  history  of  literary  forms, 
however,  or  conversely,  the  intellectual  and  moral  significance  of 
literary  forms,  has  not  been  adequately  studied;  yet  this  subject 
is  the  very  core  of  literary  criticism  and  of  the  understanding  of 
the  history  of  literature.  In  my  previous  book,  I  described  and 
endeavored  to  evaluate  forms,  primarily,  and  used  writers  merely 
to  illustrate  them.  In  the  present  volume  I  have  examined  indi- 
vidual writers,  a  procedure  which  enables  me  to  examine  subject 
matter  more  fully  and  to  relate  subject  matter  more  fully  to  form. 

Stanford  University,  1938 


or  Hawthorne  and  the  Problem  of  Allegory 

"At  the  moment  of  execution— with  the  halter  about  his  neck  and 
while  Colonel  Pyncheon  sat  on  horseback,  grimly  gazing  at  the 
scene— Maule  had  addressed  him  from  the  scaffold,  and  uttered  a 
prophecy,  of  which  history  as  well  as  fireside  tradition,  has  preserved 
the  very  words.  'God/  said  the  dying  man,  pointing  his  finger,  with 
a  ghastly  look,  at  the  undismayed  countenance  of  his  enemy,  'God 
will  give  him  blood  to  drink!' " 

—The  House  of  the  Seven  Gables 

OF  HAWTHORNE'S  THREE  most  important  long  works— The  Scar- 
let Letter,  The  House  of  the  Seven  Gables,  and  The  Marble 
Faun— the  first  is  pure  allegory,  and  the  other  two  are  impure 
novels,  or  novels  with  unassimilated  allegorical  elements.  The 
first  is  faultless,  in  scheme  and  in  detail;  it  is  one  of  the  chief 
masterpieces  of  English  prose.  The  second  and  third  are  interest- 
ing, the  third  in  particular,  but  both  are  failures,  and  neither 
would  suffice  to  give  the  author  a  very  high  place  in  the  history 
of  prose  fiction.  Hawthorne's  sketches  and  short  stories,  at  best, 
are  slight  performances;  either  they  lack  meaning,  as  in  the  case 
of  Mr.  Higginbothams  Catastrophe,  or  they  lack  reality  of  em- 
bodiment, as  in  the  case  of  The  Birthmark,  or,  having  a  measure 
of  both,  as  does  The  Minister's  Black  Veil,  they  yet  seem  incapa- 
ble of  justifying  the  intensity  of  the  method,  their  very  brevity 
and  attendant  simplification,  perhaps,  working  against  them;  the 
best  of  them,  probably,  is  Young  Goodman  Brown.  In  his  later 
romances,  Septimius  Felton,.  Dr.  Grimshaw's  Secret,  The  Ances- 
tral Footstep,  and  The  Dolliver  Romance,  and  in  much  of  The 
Blithedale  Romance  as  well,  Hawthorne  struggles  unsuccessfully 
with  the  problem  of  allegory,  but  he  is  still  obsessed  with  it. 
Hawthorne  is,  then,  essentially  an  allegorist;  had  he  followed 


the  advice  of  Poe  and  other  well-wishers,  contemporary  with  him- 
self and  posthumous,  and  thrown  his  allegorizing  out  the  window, 
it  is  certain  that  nothing  essential  to  his  genius  would  have  re- 
mained. He  appears  to  have  had  none  of  the  personal  qualifica- 
tions of  a  novelist,  for  one  thing:  the  sombre  youth  who  lived  in 
solitude  and  in  contemplation  in  Salem,  for  a  dozen  years  or 
more,  before  succumbing  to  the  charms  and  propinquity  of  Miss 
Sophia  Peabody  and  making  the  spasmodic  and  only  moderately 
successful  efforts  to  accustom  himself  to  daylight  which  were  to 
vex  the  remainder  of  his  life,  was  one  far  more  likely  to  concern 
himself  with  the  theory  of  mankind  than  with  the  chaos,  trivial, 
brutal,  and  exhausting,  of  the  actuality.  Furthermore,  as  we  shall 
see  more  fully,  the  Puritan  view  of  life  was  allegorical,  and  the 
allegorical  vision  seems  to  have  been  strongly  impressed  upon 
the  New  England  literary  mind.  It  is  fairly  obvious  in  much  of  the 
poetry  of  Emerson,  Emily  Dickinson,  Byrant,  Holmes,  and  even 
Very— Whittier,  a  Quaker  and  a  peasant,  alone  of  the  more  inter- 
esting poets  escaping;  Melville,  relatively  an  outsider,  shows  the 
impact  of  New  England  upon  his  own  genius  as  much  through 
his  use  of  allegory  as  through  his  use  of  New  England  character; 
and  the  only  important  novelist  purely  a  New  Englander,  aside 
from  Hawthorne,  that  is,  O.  W.  Holmes,  was  primarily  con- 
cerned with  the  Puritan  tendency  to  allegory,  as  its  one  consider 
able  satirist,  yet  was  himself  more  or  less  addicted  to  it. 

These  matters  are  speculative.  That  New  England  predisposed 
Hawthorne  to  allegory  cannot  be  shown;  yet  the  disposition  in 
both  is  obvious.  And  it  can  easily  be  shown  that  New  England 
provided  the  perfect  material  for  one  great  allegory,  and  that,  in 
all  likelihood,  she  was  largely  to  blame  for  the  later  failures. 

The  Puritan  theology  rested  primarily  upon  the  doctrine  of 
predestination  and  the  inefficaciousness  of  good  works;  it  sepa- 
rated men  sharply  and  certainly  into  two  groups,  the  saved  and 
the  damned,  and,  technically,  at  least,  was  not  concerned  with 
any  subtler  shadings.  This  in  itself  represents  a  long  step  toward 
the  allegorization  of  experience,  for  a  very  broad  abstraction  is 
substituted  for  the  patient  study  of  the  minutiae  of  moral  be- 
havior long  encouraged  by  Catholic  tradition.  Another  step  was 

necessary,  however,  and  this  step  was  taken  in  Massachusetts  al- 
most at  the  beginning  of  the  settlement,  and  in  the  expulsion  of 
Anne  Hutchinson  became  the  basis  of  governmental  action: 
whereas  the  wholly  Calvinistic  Puritan  denied  the  value  of  the 
evidence  of  character  and  behavior  as  signs  of  salvation,  and  so 
precluded  the  possibility  of  their  becoming  allegorical  symbols— 
for  the  orthodox  Calvinist,  such  as  Mrs.   Hutchinson  would 
appear  to  have  been,  trusted  to  no  witness  save  that  of  the  Inner 
Light— it  became  customary  in  Massachusetts  to  regard  as  evi- 
dence of  salvation  the  decision  of  the  individual  to  enter  the 
Church  and  lead  a  moral  life.  'The  Puritans/'  says  Parkes,  "were 
plain  blunt  men  with  little  taste  for  mysticism  and  no  talent  for 
speculation.  A  new  conception  was  formulated  by  English  theo- 
logians, of  whom  William  Ames  was  the  most  influential.  The 
sign  of  election  was  not  an  inner  assurance;  it  was  a  sober  de- 
cision to  trust  in  Christ  and  obey  God's  law.  Those  who  made 
this  sober  decision  might  feel  reasonably  confident  that  they  had 
received  God's  grace;  but  the  surest  proof  of  it  was  its  fruit  in  con- 
duct; complete  assurance  was  impossible.  It  was  assumed  that  all 
was  the  work  of  grace;  it  was  God,  without  human  cooperation, 
who  caused  the  sober  decision  to  be  made.  But  in  actual  practice 
this  doctrine  had  the  effect  of  unduly  magnifying  man's  ability  to 
save  himself,  as  much  as  Calvin's  conception  had  unduly  mini- 
mized it;  conversion  was  merely  a  choice  to  obey  a  certain  code  of 
rules,  and  did  not  imply  any  emotional  change,  any  love  for  God, 
or  for  holiness,  or  any  genuine  religious  experience;  religion  in 
other  words  was  reduced  to  mere  morality."  l  Objective  evidence 
thus  took  the  place  of  inner  assurance,  and  the  behavior  of  the 
individual  took  on  symbolic  value.  That  is,  any  sin  was  evidence 
of  damnation;  or,  in  other  words,  any  sin  represented  all  sin. 
When  Hester  Prynne  committed  adultery,  she  committed  an  act 
as  purely  representative  of  complete  corruption  as  the  act  of  Faus- 
tus  in  signing  a  contract  with  Satan.  This  view  of  the  matter  is 
certainly  not  Catholic  and  is  little  short  of  appalling;  it  derives 

1  The  Puritan  Heresy,  by  H.  B.  Parkes,  The  Hound  and  Horn  V-2,  Jan.- 
March  1932,  pages  173-4.  See  also  The  Pragmatic  Test  by  H.  B.  Parkes,  The 
Colt  Press,  San  Francisco, 

from  the  fact,  that  although,  as  Parkes  states  in  the  passage  just 
quoted,  there  occurred  an  exaggeration  of  the  will  in  the  matter 
of  practical  existence,  this  same  will  was  still  denied  in  the  mat- 
ter of  doctrine,  for  according  to  doctrine  that  which  man  willed 
had  been  previously  willed  by  God. 

The  belief  that  the  judgment  of  a  man  is  predestined  by  God, 
and  the  corollary  that  the  judgment  of  a  good  man,  since  all  men 
are  either  good  or  bad,  purely  and  simply,  is  the  judgment  of 
God,  may  lead  in  the  natural  course  of  events  to  extraordinary 
drama;  and  this  the  more  readily  if  the  actors  in  the  drama  are 
isolated  from  the  rest  of  the  world  and  believe  that  the  drama  in 
which  they  take  part  is  of  cosmic  importance  and  central  in  hu- 
man destiny.  Andrews  writes:  "The  belief  that  God  had  selected 
New  England  as  the  chosen  land  was  profoundly  held  by  the 
Puritans  who  went  there.  Winthrop  himself  in  1640  wrote  to 
Lord  Saye  and  Sele  of  'this  good  land  which  God  hath  found 
and  given  to  his  people/  adding  that  'God  had  chosen  this  coun- 
try to  plant  his  people  in/  Cotton  in  his  sermon,  God's  Prom- 
ise to  His  Plantation  (London,  1634),  devotes  much  space  to 
the  same  idea—  This  place  is  appointed  me  of  God/  "  2  And 
Schneider  writes  on  the  same  subject:  "No  one  can  live  long  in  a 
Holy  Commonwealth  without  becoming  sensitive,  irritable,  los- 
ing his  sense  of  values  and  ultimately  his  balance.  All  acts  are 
acts  either  of  God  or  of  the  devil;  all  issues  are  matters  of  reli- 
gious faith;  and  all  conflicts  are  holy  wars.  No  matter  how  trivial 
an  opinion  might  appear  from  a  secular  point  of  view,  it  be- 
came vital  when  promulgated  as  a  theological  dogma;  no  matter 
how  harmless  a  fool  might  be,  he  was  intolerable  if  he  did  not 
fit  into  the  Covenant  of  Grace;  no  matter  how  slight  an  offense 
might  be,  it  was  a  sin  against  Almighty  God  and  hence  infinite. 
Differences  of  opinion  became  differences  of  faith.  Critics  be- 
came blasphemers,  and  innovators,  heretics/'8  And  again:  ".  .  . 
the  mind  of  the  Puritan  was  singularly  unified  and  his  imagina- 
tion thoroughly  moralized.  The  clergy  were,  of  course,  the  pro- 

1  The  Colonial  Period  of  American  History,  by  Charles  M.  Andrews;  Yale 

niversity  Press,  1934.  Vol.  I,  page  386,  note  2. 

3  The  Puritan  Mind,  by  H.  W.  Schneider;  Henry  Holt,  1930,  pages  51-2. 

fessional  moral  scientists,  but  the  laymen  were  no  less  dominated 
by  such  mental  habits.  The  common  man  and  illiterate  shared 
with  the  expert  this  interest  in  divining  God's  purposes  in  the 
course  of  events.  No  event  was  merely  natural;  it  was  an  act  of 
God  and  was  hence  charged  with  that  'numinous'  quality  which 
gives  birth  to  both  prophetic  insight  and  mystic  illumination."  4 
And  again:  "Nature  was  instructive  to  them  only  in  so  far  as  it 
suggested  the  hidden  mysterious  operations  of  designing  agents. 
God  and  devil  were  both  active,  scheming,  hidden  powers,  each 
pursuing  his  own  ends  by  various  ministrations,  and  natural 
events  were  therefore  to  be  understood  only  in  so  far  as  they 
showed  evidence  of  some  divine  or  diabolical  plot."  5 

Now  according  to  the  doctrine  of  predestination,  if  we  inter- 
pret it  reasonably,  Hester  merely  gave  evidence,  in  committing 
adultery,  that  she  had  always  been  one  of  the  damned.  This 
point  of  view,  if  really  understood,  could  never  have  led  to  the 
chain  of  events  which  Hawthorne  described  in  The  Scarlet 
Letter;  neither  could  it  have  led  to  the  events  of  the  actual  his- 
tory of  New  England.  It  is  at  this  point  that  we  must  consider 
that  fluid  element,  history,  in  connection  with  dogma,  for  Hester, 
like  the  witches  who  so  occupied  the  Mathers,  was  treated  as  if 
she  had  wilfully  abandoned  the  ways  of  God  for  the  ways  of 
Satan.  This  final  illogicality  introduces  the  element  of  drama 
into  the  allegory  of  The  Scarlet  Letter  and  into  the  allegorical 
morality  of  the  Puritans. 

The  English  Puritans  who  settled  Massachusetts  were  socially 
the  product  of  centuries  of  the  type  of  ethical  discipline  fostered 
by  the  Catholic  and  Anglo-Catholic  Churches.  They  may  have 
denied  the  freedom  of  the  will  and  the  efficaciousness  of  good 
works  by  lip,  but  by  habit,  and  without  really  grasping  the  fact, 
they  believed  in  them  and  acted  upon  them.  Edwards  exhorts 
sinners  to  repent  while  preaching  the  doctrine  of  the  inability 
to  repent;  the  Mathers  wrestled  with  demons  physically  and  in 
broad  daylight,  and  quite  obviously  felt  virtuous  for  having  done 
so;  in  fact,  to  such  a  pass  did  Puritanism  come,  that  Melville's 
Ahab,  who  wilfully  embarks  upon  the  Sea  of  Unpredictability 

*  Ibid.,  page  48.  5  Ibid.,  pages  42-3. 


in  order  to  overtake  and  slay  the  Spirit  of  Evil— an  effort  in 
which  he  is  predestined  and  at  the  end  of  which  he  is  pre- 
destined to  destruction— appears  to  us  merely  the  heroic  projec- 
tion of  a  common  Puritan  type.  The  Puritan  may  be  said  to  have 
conceived  the  Manicheistic  struggle  between  Absolute  Good  and 
Absolute  Evil,  which  he  derived  through  the  processes  of  simpli- 
fication and  misunderstanding  which  have  already  been  enumer- 
ated, as  a  kind  of  preordained  or  mechanical,  yet  also  holy  combat, 
in  which  his  own  part  was  a  part  at  once  intense  and  holy  and  yet 
immutably  regulated. 

There  were  at  least  two  motives  in  the  new  environment  which 
tended  to  intensify  the  effect  of  habit  in  this  connection :  one  was 
the  inevitable  impulse  given  to  the  will  by  the  exaltation  attend- 
ant upon  a  new  religious  movement;  the  other  was  the  impulse 
given  by  the  supremely  difficult  physical  surroundings  in  which 
the  new  colonies  found  themselves.  Foster  writes  on  these  points: 
"The  first  Puritans,  sure  in  their  own  hearts  that  they  were  the 
elect  of  God,  found  the  doctrine  necessary  to  sustain  them  in  the 
tremendous  ^struggle  through  which  they  passed.  .  .  .  Hence 
the  doctrine  nerved  to  greater  activity;  and  it  produced  a  similar 
effect  during  the  first  period  of  the  promulgation  of  Calvinism, 
among  every  nation  which  accepted  the  system/'  6  The  force  of 
the  will  was  strengthened  at  the  beginning,  then,  at  the  same 
time  that  its  existence  was  denied  and  that  reliance  upon  its 
manner  of  functioning  (that  is,  upon  good  works)  was,  from  a 
doctrinal  standpoint,  regarded  as  sin.  The  will,  highly  stimulated, 
but  no  longer  studied  and  guided  by  the  flexible  and  sensitive 
ethical  scholarship  of  the  Roman  tradition,  might  easily  result 
in  dangerous  action. 

Andrews  speaks  of  this  subject  as  follows:  "The  dynamic 
agency  .  .  .  the  driving  force  which  overrode  all  opposition, 
legal  and  otherwise,  was  the  profound  conviction  of  the  Puritan 
leaders  that  they  were  doing  the  Lord's  work.  They  looked  upon 
themselves  as  instruments  in  the  divine  hand  for  the  carrying  out 
of  a  great  religious  mission,  the  object  of  which  was  the  rebuild- 

e  A  Genetic  History  of  the  New  England  Theology,  by  Frank  Hugh  Foster; 
University  of  Chicago  Press,  1907;  page  29. 

ing  of  God's  church  in  a  land— the  undefiled  land  of  America— 
divinely  set  apart  as  the  scene  of  a  holy  experiment  that  should 
renovate  the  church  at  large,  everywhere  corrupt  and  falling  into 
ruins.  This  new  and  purified  community  was  to  be  the  home  of  a 
saving  remnant  delivered  from  the  wrath  to  come  and  was  to 
serve  as  an  example  to  the  mother  church  of  a  regenerated  form 
of  faith  and  worship.  It  was  also  to  become  a  proselyting  center 
for  the  conversion  of  the  heathen  and  the  extension  of  the  true 
gospel  among  those  who  knew  it  not.  In  the  fulfillment  of  this 
mission  the  Puritans  counted  obstacles,  moral  and  physical,  of 
no  moment.  Theirs  was  a  religious  duty  to  frustrate  their  ene- 
mies, to  eradicate  all  inimical  opinions,  religious  and  political, 
and  to  extend  the  field  of  their  influence  as  widely  as  possible. 
Once  they  had  determined  on  their  rules  of  polity  and  conduct, 
as  laid  down  in  the  Bible  and  interpreted  by  the  clergy,  they  had 
no  doubts  of  the  justness  and  Tightness  of  their  course.  The 
means  employed  might  savor  of  harshness  and  inequity,  but  at  all 
costs  and  under  all  circumstances,  error,  sin,  and  idolatry,  in 
whatever  form  appearing  and  as  determined  by  themselves,  must 
be  destroyed.  In  the  process,  as  events  were  to  prove,  a  great  many 
very  human  motives  played  an  important  part  in  interpreting  the 
law  of  God,  and  personal  likes  and  dislikes,  hypocrisy,  prejudice, 
and  passion  got  badly  mixed  with  the  higher  and  more  spiritual 
impulses  that  were  actively  at  work  purging  the  church  of  its 

»  7 


Over  a  long  period,  however,  the  doctrine  of  predestination 
would  naturally  lead  to  religious  apathy,  for  it  offered  no  explicit 
motive  to  action;  and  this  is  precisely  that  to  which  it  led,  for 
after  the  Great  Awakening  of  the  middle  of  the  eighteenth  cen- 
tury, itself  a  reaction  to  previous  decay  in  the  Church,  the  Church 
lost  power  rapidly,  and  by  the  opening  of  the  nineteenth  century 
was  succumbing  on  every  hand  to  Unitarianism,  a  mildly  mor- 
alistic creed,  in  which  the  element  of  supernaturalism  was  mini- 
mized, and  which,  in  turn,  yielded  rapidly  among  the  relatively 
intellectual  classes  to  Romantic  ethical  theory,  especially  as  pro- 
pounded by  the  Transcendentalists.  "It  has  never  been  a  good 

7  Charles  M.  Andrews,  op.  cit.,  Vol.  I,  pages  430-1. 


way  to  induce  men  to  repent/1  says  Foster,  "to  tell  them  that  they 
cannot/' 8  Or  at  least  the  method  has  never  been  highly  success- 
ful except  when  employed  by  a  rhetorician  of  the  power  of 
Edwards,  or  by  an  orator  of  the  effectiveness  of  Whitefield;  and 
the  effect  can  scarcely  be  expected  long  to  outlive  the  immediate 
presence  of  the  speaker.  The  Unitarians,  in  depriving  the  ethical 
life  of  the  more  impressive  aspects  of  its  supernatural  sanction, 
and  in  offering  nothing  to  take  the  place  of  that  sanction,  all  but 
extinguished  intensity  of  moral  conviction,  although  their  own 
conviction— we  may  see  it  portrayed,  for  example,  in  The  Euro- 
peans, by  Henry  James,  and  exemplified  in  the  lucid  and  classical 
prose  of  W.  E.  Channing— was  a  conviction,  at  least  for  a  period, 
of  the  greatest  firmness  and  dignity.  Emerson  eliminated  the  need 
of  moral  conviction  and  of  moral  understanding  alike,  by  promul- 
gating the  allied  doctrines  of  equivalence  and  of  inevitable  virtue. 
In  an  Emersonian  universe  there  is  equally  no  need  and  no  pos- 
sibility of  judgment;  it  is  a  universe  of  amiable  but  of  perfectly 
unconscious  imbeciles;  it  is  likewise  a  universe  in  which  the  art 
of  the  fictionist— or  for  that  matter,  any  other  art— can  scarcely  be 
expected  to  flourish.  A  fictionist  who  has  been  in  any  consider- 
able measure  affected  by  Emersonian  or  allied  concepts,  or  even 
who  is  the  product  of  the  historical  sequence  which  gave  rise  to 
Emerson,  is  likely  to  find  himself  gravely  confused  and  may  even 
find  himself  paralyzed;  and  we  have  only  to  read  such  a  docu- 
ment, to  cite  a  single  example,  as  The  New  Adam  and  Eve,  to 
realize  that  Hawthorne's  own  moral  ideas,  in  spite  of  his  intense 
but  conflicting  moral  sentiments,  and  in  spite  of  his  professed  dis- 
like for  Emerson's  philosophy,  were  much  closer  to  the  ideas  of 
Emerson  than  to  those  of  Edwards. 

Now  in  examining  Hawthorne,  we  are  concerned  with  two 
historical  centers:  that  of  the  first  generation  of  Puritans  in  New 
England,  in  which  occurs  the  action  of  The  Scarlet  Letter;  and 
that  of  the  post-Unitarian  and  Romantic  intellectuals,  in  which 
was  passed  the  life  of  Hawthorne. 

Hawthorne,  by  nature  an  allegorist,  and  a  man  with  a  strong 
moral  instinct,  regardless  of  the  condition  of  his  ideas,  found  in 

8  Frank  Hugh  Foster,  op.  cit.,  page  29. 

the  early  history  of  his  own  people  and  region  the  perfect  ma- 
terial for  a  masterpiece.  By  selecting  sexual  sin  as  the  type  of  all 
sin,  he  was  true  alike  to  the  exigencies  of  drama  and  of  history.  In 
the  setting  which  he  chose,  allegory  was  realism,  the  idea  was  life 
itself;  and  his  prose,  always  remarkable  for  its  polish  and  flexi- 
bility, and  stripped,  for  once,  of  all  superfluity,  was  reduced  to 
the  living  idea,  it  intensified  pure  exposition  to  a  quality  compar- 
able in  its  way  to  that  of  great  poetry. 

The  compactness  and  complexity  of  the  allegory  will  escape 
all  save  the  most  watchful  readers.  Let  us  consider  the  follow- 
ing passage  as  a  representative  example.  Hester  has  learned  that 
the  magistrates  and  clergy  are  considering  whether  or  not  she 
ought  to  be  separated  from  her  child,  and  she  waits  upon  Gov- 
ernor Bellingham  in  order  to  plead  with  him: 

"On  the  wall  hung  a  row  of  portraits,  representing  the  fore- 
fathers of  the  Bellingham  lineage,  some  with  armor  on  their 
breasts,  and  others  with  stately  ruffs  and  robes  of  peace.  All  were 
characterized  by  the  sternness  and  severity  which  old  portraits  so 
invariably  put  on;  as  if  they  were  the  ghosts,  rather  than  the  pic- 
tures, of  departed  worthies,  and  were  gazing  with  harsh  and  in- 
tolerant criticism  at  the  pursuits  and  enjoyments  of  living  men. 

"At  about  the  center  of  the  oaken  panels,  that  lined  the  hall, 
was  suspended  a  suit  of  mail,  not,  like  the  pictures,  an  ancestral 
relic,  but  of  the  most  modern  date;  for  it  had  been  manufactured 
by  a  skillful  armorer  in  London,  the  same  year  in  which  Gover- 
nor Bellingham  came  over  to  New  England.  There  was  a  steel 
head-piece,  a  cuirass,  a  gorget,  and  greaves,  with  a  pair  of  gaunt- 
lets and  a  sword  hanging  beneath;  all,  especially  the  helmet  and 
breast-plate,  so  highly  burnished  as  to  glow  with  white  radiance, 
and  scatter  an  illumination  everywhere  about  the  floor.  This 
bright  panoply  was  not  meant  for  mere  idle  show,  but  had  been 
worn  by  the  Governor  on  many  a  solemn  muster  and  training 
field,  and  had  glittered,  moreover,  at  the  head  of  a  regiment  in 
the  Pequot  war.  For,  though  bred  a  lawyer,  and  accustomed  to 
speak  of  Bacon,  Coke,  Noye,  and  Finch  as  his  professional  asso- 
ciates, the  exigencies  of  this  new  country  had  transformed  Gov- 
ernor Bellingham  into  a  soldier  as  well  as  a  statesman  and  ruler. 

"Little  Pearl— who  was  as  greatly  pleased  with  the  gleaming 
armor  as  she  had  been  with  the  glittering  frontispiece  of  the 
house—spent  some  time  looking  into  the  polished  mirror  of  the 

"  'Mother/  cried  she,  1  see  you  here.  Look!  Look!' 

"Hester  looked,  by  way  of  humoring  the  child;  and  she  saw 
that,  owing  to  the  peculiar  effect  of  the  convex  mirror,  the  scarlet 
letter  was  represented  in  gigantic  and  exaggerated  proportions, 
so  as  to  be  greatly  the  most  prominent  feature  of  her  appearance. 
In  truth,  she  seemed  absolutely  hidden  behind  it.  Pearl  pointed 
upward,  also,  at  a  similar  picture  in  the  head-piece;  smiling  at  her 
mother  with  the  elfish  intelligence  that  was  so  familiar  an  expres- 
sion on  her  small  physiognomy.  That  look  of  naughty  merriment 
was  likewise  reflected  in  the  mirror,  with  so  much  breadth  and 
intensity  of  effect,  that  it  made  Hester  Prynne  feel  as  if  it  could 
not  be  the  image  of  her  own  child,  but  of  an  imp  who  was  seek- 
ing to  mold  itself  into  Pearl's  shape." 

The  portraits  are  obviously  intended  as  an  apology  for  the 
static  portraits  in  the  book,  as  an  illustration  of  the  principle  of 
simplification  By  distance  and  by  generalization;  the  new  armor, 
on  the  other  hand,  is  the  new  faith  which  brought  the  Puritans 
to  New  England,  and  which  not  only  shone  with  piety— "espe- 
cially the  helmet  and  breast-plate,"  the  covering  of  the  head  and 
heart— but  supported  them  in  their  practical  struggles  with  phys- 
ical adversaries,  and  which  in  addition  altered  their  view  of  the 
life  about  them  to  dogmatic  essentials,  so  that  Hester  was  oblit- 
erated behind  the  fact  of  her  sin,  and  Pearl  transformed  in  view 
of  her  origin.  Governor  Bellingham,  in  his  combination  of  legal 
training  with  military  prowess,  is  representative  of  his  fellow 
colonists,  who  displayed  in  a  remarkable  degree  a  capacity  to  act 
with  great  strength  and  with  absolutely  simple  directness  upon 
principles  so  generalized  as  scarcely  to  be  applicable  to  any  par- 
ticular moral  problem,  which  mastered  moral  difficulties  not  by 
understanding  them,  but  by  crushing  them  out. 

Historically  and  relatively  considered,  Richard  Bellingham 
might  conceivably  have  been  spared  this  function  in  the  story, 
for  of  his  group  he  was  one  of  the  two  or  three  most  humane  and 

liberal;  but  the  qualities  represented  were  the  qualities  of  the 
group  of  .which  he  was  a  leader,  and  were  extremely  evident  in 
most  of  the  actions  of  the  colony.  Perhaps  the  best— or  in  an- 
other sense,  the  worst— embodiment  of  these  qualities  is  to  be 
found  in  John  Endecott,  of  whom  Andrews  gives  the  following 
characterization:  "Endecott  had  few  lovable  qualities.  He  was 
stern,  unyielding,  and  on  some  subjects  a  zealot.  Johnson  apos- 
trophizes him  as  'strong,  valiant  John/  whom  Christ  had  called 
to  be  his  soldier,  but  the  Old  Planters,  most  if  not  all  of  whom 
were  Anglicans  and  demanded  service  according  to  the  Book  of 
Common  Prayer,  deemed  themselves  slaves  and  took  in  very  bad 
part  his  determination  to  suppress  the  Church  of  England  in  the 
colony.  They  preferred  Roger  Conant,  who  though  a  less  forcible 
man  was  one  much  easier  to  get  along  with.  Endecott's  later 
career  discloses  his  attitude  toward  those  who  differed  with  him 
—the  heathen  Indian,  the  Quaker,  the  prisoner  before  him  for 
judgment,  and  the  Brownes  and  other  upholders  of  the  Anglican 
service  who  were  disaffected  with  the  Puritan  government.  It 
also  shows  his  dislike  of  forms  and  devices  that  offended  him— 
the  Book  of  Common  Prayer,  the  cross  of  St.  George,  and  the 
Maypole.  He  was  hard,  intolerant,  and  at  times  cruel.  Even  the 
Massachusetts  government  caused  him  'to  be  sadly  admonished 
for  his  offense'  in  mutilating  the  flag  at  Salem  in  1635,  charging 
him  with  'rashness,  uncharitableness,  indiscretion,  and  exceeding 
the  limits  of  his  calling';  and  again  in  the  same  year  'committed' 
him  for  losing  his  temper.  Endecott  once  apologized  to  Winthrop 
for  striking  'goodman  Dexter,'  acknowledging  that  he  was  rash, 
but  saying  that  Dexter's  conduct  'would  have  provoked  a  very 
patient  man.'  The  best  that  can  be  said  of  him  has  been  said  by 
Chappie  ('The  Public  Service  of  John  Endecott,'  Historical  Col- 
lections, Essex  Institute),  an  essay  in  the  best  Palfrey  manner. 
It  is  odd  that  Endecott  should  have  chosen  for  his  seal  a  skull  and 
cross-bones."  9  It  is  interesting  to  observe  in  such  a  passage,  as  in 
many  others,  that  the  Puritans  cannot  be  discussed,  nor  can  they 
discuss  each  other,  without  the  language  employed  exceeding  the 
limits  proper  to  predestinarians  and  invoking  the  traditional  mo- 
*  Charles  M.  Andrews,  op.  cit.,  Vol.  I,  page  361,  note  3. 


rality  of  the  older  churches;  yet  the  attempt  to  ignore  this  tradi- 
tional morality  as  far  as  might  be,  and,  in  the  matter  of  formal 
doctrine,  to  repudiate  it,  unquestionably  had  much  to  do  with 
the  formation  of  such  characters  as  Professor  Andrews  here  de- 
scribes and  as  Hawthorne  in  the  last  passage  quoted  from  him 
symbolizes.  The  imperceptive,  unwavering  brutality  of  many  of 
the  actions  committed  in  the  name  of  piety  in  the  Massachusetts 
colonies  more  than  justified  the  curse  and  prophecy  uttered  by 
Matthew  Maule,  that  God  would  give  these  Puritans  blood  to 
drink;  in  the  name  of  God,  they  had  violently  cut  themselves  off 
from  human  nature;  in  the  end,  that  is  in  Hawthorne's  genera- 
tion and  in  the  generation  following,  more  than  one  of  them 
drank  his  own  heart's  blood,  as  Hawthorne  himself  must  have 
done  in  his  ultimate  and  frustrated  solitude,  and  more  than  one 
of  them  shed  it. 

It  is  noteworthy  that  in  this  passage  from  The  Scarlet  Letter 
Hawthorne  turns  his  instrument  of  allegory,  the  gift  of  the  Puri- 
tans, against  the  Puritans  themselves,  in  order  to  indicate  the 
limits  of  their  intelligence;  it  is  noteworthy  also  that  this  act  of 
criticism,  though  both  clear  and  sound,  is  negative,  that  he  no- 
where except  in  the  very  general  notion  of  regeneration  through 
repentance  establishes  the  nature  of  the  intelligence  which  might 
exceed  the  intelligence  of  the  Puritans,  but  rather  hints  at  the 
ideal  existence  of  a  richer  and  more  detailed  understanding  than 
the  Puritan  scheme  of  life  is  able  to  contain.  The  strength  of  The 
Scarlet  Letter  is  in  part  safe-guarded  by  the  refusal  to  explore  this 
understanding;  the  man  who  was  able  in  the  same  lifetime  to 
write  The  New  Adam  and  Eve,  to  conceive  the  art-colony  de- 
scribed in  The  Marble  Faun,  and  to  be  shocked  at  the  nude 
statues  of  antiquity,  was  scarcely  the  man  to  cast  a  clear  and 
steady  light  upon  the  finer  details  of  the  soul. 

The  conception  of  the  book  in  general  is  as  cleanly  allegorical 
as  is  the  conception  of  the  passage  quoted.  Hester  represents  the 
repentant  sinner,  Dimmesdale  the  half-repentant  sinner,  and 
Chillingworth  the  unrepentant  sinner.  The  fact  that  Chilling- 
worth's  sin  is  the  passion  for  revenge  is  significant  only  to  the 
extent  that  this  is  perhaps  the  one  passion  which  most  completely 
1 68 

isolates  man  from  normal  human  sympathies  and  which  there- 
fore is  most  properly  used  to  represent  an  unregenerate  condition. 

The  method  of  allegorization  is  that  of  the  Puritans  them- 
selves; the  substance  of  the  allegory  remained  in  a  crude  form  a 
part  of  their  practical  Christianity  in  spite  of  their  Calvinism, 
just  as  it  remained  in  their  non-theological  linguistic  forms,  just 
as  we  can  see  it  in  the  language  of  the  best  poems  of  so  purely 
and  mystically  Calvinistic  a  writer  as  Jones  Very,  a  living  lan- 
guage related  to  a  living  experience,  but  overflowing  the  limits 
of  Calvinistic  dogma;  Hawthorne's  point  of  view  was  naturally 
more  enlightened  than  that  of  the  Puritans  themselves,  yet  it  was 
insufficiently  so  to  enable  him  to  recover  the  traditional  Chris- 
tian ethics  except  in  the  most  general  terms  and  by  way  of  his- 
torical sympathy,  for  had  a  more  complete  recovery  been  possible, 
he  would  not  have  been  so  narrowly  bound  to  the  method  of 
allegory  and  the  frustration  of  the  later  romances  would  scarcely 
have  been  so  complete. 

Once  Hawthorne  had  reduced  the  problem  of  sin  to  terms  as 
general  as  these,  and  had  brought  his  allegory  to  perfect  literary 
form,  he  had,  properly  speaking,  dealt  with  sin  once  and  for 
all;  there  was  nothing  further  to  be  said  about  it.  It  would  not 
serve  to  write  another  allegory  with  a  new  set  of  characters  and 
a  different  sin  as  the  motive;  for  the  particular  sin  is  not  par- 
ticular in  function,  but  is  merely  representative  of  sin  in  general, 
as  the  characters,  whatever  their  names  and  conditions  may  be, 
are  merely  representative  of  the  major  stages  of  sin— there  is  no 
escape  from  the  generality  so  long  as  one  adheres  to  the  method. 
There  was  nothing  further,  then,  to  be  done  in  this  direction, 
save  the  composition  of  a  few  footnotes  to  the  subject  in  the  form 
of  sketches. 

The  only  alternative  remaining  was  to  move  away  from  the 
allegorical  extreme  of  narrative  toward  the  specific,  that  is,  to- 
ward the  art  of  the  novelist.  The  attempt  was  made,  but  fell 
short  of  success.  In  The  House  of  the  Seven  Gables  and  in  The 
Marble  Faun  alike  the  moral  understanding  of  the  action— and 
there  is  a  serious  attempt  at  such  understanding,  at  least  in  The 
Marble  Faun— is  corrupted  by  a  provincial  sentimentalism  ethi- 


cally  far  inferior  to  the  Manicheism  of  the  Puritans,  which  was 
plain  and  comprehensive,  however  brutal.  And  Hawthorne  had 
small  gift  for  the  creation  of  human  beings,  a  defect  allied  to 
his  other  defects  and  virtues:  even  the  figures  in  The  Scarlet 
Letter  are  unsatisfactory  if  one  comes  to  the  book  expecting  to 
find  a  novel,  for  they  draw  their  life  not  from  simple  and  fa- 
miliar human  characteristics,  as  do  the  figures  of  Henry  James, 
but  from  the  precision  and  intensity  with  which  they  render 
their  respective  ideas;  the  very  development  of  the  story  is  neither 
narrative  nor  dramatic,  but  expository.  When,  as  in  The  Marble 
faun  or  The  House  of  the  Seven  Gables,  there  is  no  idea  gov- 
erning the  human  figure,  or  when  the  idea  is  an  incomplete 
or  unsatisfactory  equivalent  of  the  figure,  the  figure  is  likely  to 
be  a  disappointing  spectacle,  for  he  is  seldom  if  ever  a  convincing 
human  being  and  is  likely  to  verge  on  the  ludicrous.  Hawthorne 
had  not  the  rich  and  profound  awareness  of  immediacy  which 
might  have  saved  a  writer  such  as  Melville  in  a  similar  pre- 

His  effort  to  master  the  novelist's  procedure,  however,  was  not 
sustained,  for  his  heart  was  not  in  it.  In  The  Blithedale  Romance, 
he  began  as  a  novelist,  but  lost  himself  toward  the  close  in  an 
unsuccessful  effort  to  achieve  allegory;  the  four  unfinished  ro- 
mances represent  similar  efforts  throughout. 

His  procedure  in  the  last  works  was  startlingly  simple;  so 
much  so,  that  no  one  whom  1  can  recollect  has  run  the  risk  of 
defining  it. 

In  The  Scarlet  Letter  there  occurs  a  formula  which  one  might 
name  the  formula  of  alternative  possibilities.  In  the  ninth  chap- 
ter, for  example,  there  occurs  the  following  passage:  "The  peo- 
ple, in  the  case  of  which  we  speak,  could  justify  its  prejudice 
against  Roger  Chillingworth  by  no  fact  or  argument  worthy  of 
serious  refutation.  There  was  an  aged  handicraftsman,  it  is  true, 
who  had  been  a  citizen  of  London  at  the  period  of  Sir  Thomas 
Overbury's  murder,  now  some  thirty  years  agone;  he  testified  to 
having  seen  the  physician,  under  some  other  name,  which  the 
narrator  of  the  story  had  now  forgotten,  in  company  with  Dr. 
Forman,  the  famous  old  conjuror,  who  was  implicated  in  the 

affair  of  Overbury.  Two  or  three  individuals  hinted,  that  the 
man  of  skill,  during  his  Indian  captivity,  had  enlarged  his  med- 
ical attainments  by  joining  in  the  incantations  of  the  savage 
priests;  who  were  universally  acknowledged  to  be  powerful  en- 
chanters, often  performing  seemingly  miraculous  cures  by  their 
skill  in  the  black  art.  A  large  number— many  of  them  were  per- 
sons of  such  sober  sense  and  practical  observation  that  their 
opinions  would  have  been  valuable  in  other  matters— affirmed 
that  Roger  Chillingworth's  aspect  had  undergone  a  remarkable 
change  while  he  had  dwelt  in  the  town,  and  especially  since  his 
abode  with  Dimmesdale.  At  first,  his  expression  had  been  calm, 
meditative,  scholar-like.  Now,  there  was  something  ugly  and  evil 
in  his  face,  which  they  had  not  previously  noticed,  and  which 
grew  still  more  obvious  to  sight  the  oftener  they  looked  upon 
him.  According  to  the  vulgar  idea,  the  fire  in  his  laboratory  had 
been  brought  from  the  lower  regions,  and  was  fed  with  infernal 
fuel;  and  so,  as  might  be  expected,  his  visage  was  getting  sooty 
with  smoke/' 

In  such  a  passage  as  this,  the  idea  conveyed  is  clear  enough, 
but  the  embodiment  of  the  idea  appears  far-fetched,  and  Haw 
thornc  offers  it  whimsically  and  apologetically,  professing  to  let 
you  take  it  or  leave  it.  Another  example  occurs  in  the  eighteenth 
chapter;  Dimmesdale  and  Hester  are  sitting  in  the  forest,  plan- 
ning the  flight  which  ultimately  is  never  to  take  place,  and 
Pearl,  the  symbolic  offspring  of  the  untamed  elements  of  human 
nature,  and  hence  akin  to  the  forest,  which,  in  the  Puritan  mind, 
was  ruled  by  Satan  in  person,  plays  apart:  "A  fox,  startled  from 
his  sleep  by  her  light  footstep  on  the  leaves,  looked  inquisitively 
at  Pearl,  as  doubting  whether  it  were  better  to  steal  off  or  renew 
his  nap  on  the  same  spot.  A  wolf,  it  is  said— but  here  the  talc 
has  surely  lapsed  into  the  improbable— came  up  and  smelt  of 
PeaiTs  robe,  and  offered  his  savage  head  to  be  patted  by  her 
hand.  The  truth  seems  to  be,  however,  that  the  mother-forest, 
and  these  wild  things  which  it  nourished,  all  recognized  a  kin- 
dred wildncss  in  the  human  child."  Similarly,  in  The  Marble 
Fmw,  one  never  learns  whether  Donatello  had  or  had  not  the 
pointed  ears  which  serve  throughout  the  book  as  the  physical 


symbol  of  his  moral  nature;  the  book  ends  with  the  question 
being  put  to  Kenyon,  who  has  had  opportunities  to  observe,  and 
with  his  refusing  to  reply. 

This  device,  though  it  becomes  a  minor  cause  of  irritation 
through  constant  recurrence,  is  relatively  harmless,  and  at  times 
is  even  used  with  good  effect.  If  we  reverse  the  formula,  however, 
so  as  to  make  the  physical  representation  perfectly  clear  but  the 
meaning  uncertain,  we  have  a  very  serious  situation;  and  this  is 
precisely  what  occurs,  in  some  measure  toward  the  close  of  The 
Blithedale  Romance,  and  without  mitigation  throughout  the  four 
unfinished  romances.  We  have  in  the  last  all  of  the  machinery 
and  all  of  the  mannerisms  of  the  allegorist,  but  we  cannot  dis- 
cover the  substance  of  his  communication,  nor  is  he  himself 
aware  of  it  so  far  as  we  can  judge.  We  have  the  symbolic  foot- 
print, the  symbolic  spider,  the  symbolic  elixirs  and  poisons,  but 
we  have  not  that  of  which  they  are  symbolic;  we  have  the 
hushed,  the  tense  and  confidential  manner,  on  the  part  of  the 
narrator,  of  one  who  imparts  a  grave  secret,  but  the  words  are 
inaudible.  Yet  we  have  not,  on  the  other  hand,  anything  ap- 
proaching realistic  fiction,  for  the  events  are  improbable  or  even 
impossible,  and  the  characters  lack  all  reality.  The  technique 
neither  of  the  novelist  nor  of  the  allegorist  was  available  to  Haw- 
thorne when  he  approached  the  conditions  of  his  own  experi- 
ence: he  had  looked  for  signals  in  nature  so  long  and  so  intently, 
and  his  ancestors  before  him  had  done  so  for  so  many  genera- 
tions, that,  like  a  man  hypnotized,  or  like  a  man  corroded  with 
madness,  he  saw  them;  but  he  no  longer  had  any  way  of  deter- 
mining their  significance,  and  he  had  small  talent  for  rendering 
their  physical  presence  with  intensity. 

Percy  Boynton,10  in  quoting  the  following  passages  from  Sep- 
timius  Felton,  refers  to  it  as  a  self-portrait:  "As  for  Septimius, 
let  him  alone  a  moment  or  two,  and  then  they  would  see  him, 
with  his  head  bent  down,  brooding,  brooding,  his  eyes  fixed  on 
some  chip,  some  stone,  some  common  plant,  any  commonest 

10  Literature  and  American  Life,  by  Percy  H.  Boynton;  Ginn  and  Co.,  1936; 
page  518. 


thing,  as  if  it  were  the  clew  and  index  to  some  mystery;  and 
when,  by  chance  startled  out  of  these  meditations,  he  lifted  his 
eyes,  there  would  be  a  kind  of  perplexity,  a  dissatisfied,  foiled 
look  in  them,  as  if  of  his  speculations  he  found  no  end/' 

It  is  in  this  generation  and  the  next  that  we  see  most  clearly 
and  bitterly  the  realization  of  Maule's  prophecy.  These  men  were 
cut  off  from  their  heritage,  from  their  source  of  significance, 
and  were  abnormally  sensitive  to  the  influence  of  European  Ro- 
manticism. In  Emerson11  the  terms  of  New  England  mysticism 
and  of  Romantic  amoralism  were  fused  and  confused  so  inex- 
tricably that  we  have  not  yet  worked  ourselves  free  of  them.  In 
Poe,  a  man  born  without  a  background,  New  England  or  any 
other,  Romantic  doctrine  was  introduced  directly,  in  a  form  free 
of  theological  terminology,  but  in  a  form  none  the  less  which 
would  tend  in  the  long  run  to  support  the  influence  of  Emerson. 
In  Melville,  the  greatest  man  of  his  era  and  of  his  nation,  we 
find  a  writer  superior  at  certain  points  in  his  career— in  books 
such  as  Moby  Dick  and  Benito  Cereno,  for  example— to  the 
confusion  and  apparently  understanding  it;  at  other  points— in 
books  like  Mardi  and  Pierre,— succumbing  to  the  confusion;  at 
all  points  in  his  career  made  to  suffer  for  the  confusion  of  con- 
temporary literary  taste;  and  at  the  end,  settling  himself  in  si- 
lence, a  figure  more  difficult  to  face  than  the  later  Hawthorne- 
more  difficult,  because  more  conscious,  more  controlled,  and 
more  nearly  indifferent. 

In  Henry  Adams  we  see  the  curse  at  work  most  clearly:  intel- 
lectual but  inconsecutive,  unable  to  justify  any  principle  of  ac- 
tion, yet  with  a  character  of  the  highest,  a  character  which  de- 
manded not  only  just  action  but  its  justification,  he  was  damned 
to  a  kind  of  restless  torment;  in  which,  though  an  historian  of 
great  learning  and  of  high  academic  distinction,  he  transformed 
the  Middle  Ages  by  a  process  of  subtle  falsification,  into  a  symbol 
of  his  own  latter-day  New  England  longing;  in  which,  though 
a  stylist  of  great  power  and  precision,  he  propounded  the  aes- 

11  This  subject  is  fully  discussed  by  H.  B.  Parkes,  The  Hound  and  Horn, 
V-4,  July-Sept.  1932,  pages  581-601,  and  The  Pragmatic  Test. 


thetic  theory  that  modern  art  must  be  confused  to  express  con- 
fusion;12 in  which,  though  a  philosopher  of  a  sort,  he  created  one 
of  the  most  unphilosophical  theories  of  history  imaginable,  as  a 
poetic  symbol  of  his  own  despair.  In  the  suicide  of  Henry  Adams' 
wife  it  is  conceivable  that  we  see  the  logical  outcome  of  his  own 
dilemma,  an  outcome  in  his  own  case  prevented  by  the  inherit- 
ance of  character,  which,  like  the  inheritance  of  confusion,  was 
bequeathed  him  by  early  New  England.13 

In  The  Scarlet  Letter,  then,  Hawthorne  composed  a  great  al- 
legory; or,  if  we  look  first  at  the  allegorical  view  of  life  upon 
which  early  Puritan  society  was  based,  we  might  almost  say 
that  he  composed  a  great  historical  novel.  History,  which  by 
placing  him  in  an  anti-intellectual  age  had  cut  him  off  from  the 
ideas  which  might  have  enabled  him  to  deal  with  his  own  pe- 
riod, in  part  made  up  for  the  injustice  by  facilitating  his  en- 
trance, for  a  brief  time,  into  an  age  more  congenial  to  his  nature. 
Had  he  possessed  the  capacity  for  criticizing  and  organizing  con- 
ceptions as  well  as  for  dramatizing  them,  he  might  have  risen 
superior  to  his  disadvantages,  but  like  many  other  men  of  major 
genius  he  lacked  this  capacity.  In  turning  his  back  upon  the 
excessively  simplified  conceptions  of  his  Puritan  ancestors,  he 
abandoned  the  only  orderly  concepts,  whatever  their  limitations, 
to  which  he  had  access,  and  in  his  last  work  he  is  restless  and 
dissatisfied.  The  four  last  romances  arc  unfinished,  and  in  each 
successive  one  he  sought  to  incorporate  and  perfect  elements  from 
those  preceding;  the  last,  The  Dolliver  Romance,  which  he  had 
sought  to  make  the  best,  had  he  lived,  is  a  mere  fragment,  but 
on  the  face  of  it  is  the  most  preposterous  of  all.  His  dilemma, 
the  choice  between  abstractions  inadequate  or  irrelevant  to  ex- 
perience on  the  one  hand,  and  experience  on  the  other  as  far  as 
practicable  unilluminated  by  understanding,  is  tragically  charac- 
teristic of  the  history  of  this  country  and  of  its  literature;  only  a 
few  scattered  individuals,  at  the  cost  of  inordinate  labor,  and 
often  impermanently,  have  achieved  the  permeation  of  human 

12  See  the  last  three  or  four  pages  of  Mont  Saint-Michel  and  Chartres. 
18  This  idea  is  very  ably  defended  by  Katherine  Simonds,  the  New  England 
Quarterly,  December,  1936. 


experience  by  a  consistent  moral  understanding  which  results 
in  wisdom  and  in  great  art.  If  art  is  to  he  measured  by  the  great- 
ness of  the  difficulties  overcome— and  the  measure  is  not  wholly 
unreasonable,  for  there  can  scarcely  be  virtue  without  a  com- 
prehension of  sin,  and  the  wider  and  more  careful  the  compre- 
hension the  richer  the  virtue— then  these  few  writers  are  very 
great  indeed.  Hawthorne,  when  he  reversed  his  formula  of  al- 
ternative possibilities,  and  sought  to  grope  his  way  blindly  to 
significance,  made  the  choice  of  the  later  Romantics;  and  his 
groping  was  met  wherever  he  moved  by  the  smooth  and  im- 
passive surface  of  the  intense  inane. 


or  The  Ruins  of  Time 

"From  this  point  the  northern  side  of  the  bay  is  a  confused  mass 
of  villages,  villas,  ruins,  palaces,  and  vines,  until  we  reach  its  extrem- 
ity; a  low  promontory,  like  its  opposite  neighbor.  A  small  island  comes 
next,  a  sort  of  natural  sentinel;  then  the  coast  sweeps  northward  into 
another  and  smaller  bay,  rich  to  satiety  with  relics  of  the  past,  termi- 
nating at  a  point  some  miles  farther  seaward,  with  a  high,  reddish, 
sandy  bluff,  which  almost  claims  to  be  a  mountain." 

— Wing-and-Wing 

SINCE  THE  PUBLICATION  of  Robert  Spiller's  admirable  work  on 
Cooper,1  his  importance  as  a  social  critic  has  been  generally 
recognized;  his  literary  virtues  have  had  in  the  past  their  dis- 
tinguished admirers,  though  today  his  reputation  as  a  literary 
artist  is  very  much  in  eclipse.  Of  these  virtues  Mr.  Spiller,  who 
has  done  more  for  him  than  has  any  other  critic  of  our  period, 
says  relatively  little,  and  it  may  be  profitable  to  attempt  a  re- 
definition of  them  in  part  in  the  light  of  Mr.  Spiller's  examina- 
tion of  the  social  theories. 

Cooper  believed  in  democratic  government;  and,  as  an  aggres- 
sively patriotic  American,  he  was  capable,  among  the  enemies 
of  democratic  theory,  of  going  to  considerable  length  in  its  de- 
fense; but  he  distrusted  the  common  and  uneducated  man— that 
is,  he  feared  irrational  mob  action;  he  feared  that  the  idea  of 
democracy  might  easily  be  degraded  into  the  dogma  that  what- 
ever a  majority  decides  is  right.  Such  a  degradation  would  result 
naturally  in  the  immediate  subversion  of  law  and  of  civilization; 
and  it  would  open  the  way  for  all  kinds  of  illegal  individual 
action,  which  might  in  turn  lead  to  the  acquisition  by  a  few 

1  Fenimore  Cooper,  Critic  of  His  Times,  by  Robert  E.  Spiller;  Minton  Balch 
and  Co.,  1931. 


uneducated  and  unscrupulous  men  of  great  power,  either  by  way 
of  finance  or  by  way  of  demagoguery— that  is,  he  saw  that  it 
might  be  only  a  short  step  from  irrational  democracy  to  un- 
scrupulous oligarchy.  In  such  works  as  The  Redskins,  Home  as 
Found,  and  The  Ways  of  the  Hour— extremely  bad  novels,  all 
of  them,  but  extremely  acute  criticism  of  his  period  and  of  ours 
—he  portrays  and  more  particularly  he  comments  directly  upon 
the  incipient  symptoms  of  the  disease  which  he  intensely  feared, 
even  though  he  did  not  and  could  scarcely  have  been  expected  to 
foresee  the  rapidity  and  extent  of  its  development.  In  The  Bravo, 
in  so  far  as  the  book  is  to  be  regarded  merely  as  a  social  novel, 
he  depicts  the  evils  of  oligarchy;  within  a  decade  of  his  death,  the 
oligarchy  of  which  he  had  discerned  the  first  symptoms  was 
developing  with  astonishing  rapidity,  and  within  two  decades  of 
his  death  it  had  as  regards  practical  results  rendered  the  legal 
government  very  largely  null,  and  the  nation  was  adrift  in  the 
administration  of  U.  S.  Grant. 

The  nature  of  this  development  he  understood  well  enough; 
with  characteristically  heavy  but  accurate  irony,  he  described  it 
in  the  pages  of  his  neglected  satirical  allegory,  The  Manikins, 
a  work  which  contains  much  of  his  ablest  prose:  "I  found  .  .  . 
that  the  wisest  and  best  of  the  species,  or,  what  is  much  the  same 
thing,  the  most  responsible,  uniformly  maintain  that  he  who  has 
the  largest  stake  in  society  is,  in  the  nature  of  things,  the  most 
qualified  to  administer  its  affairs.  By  a  stake  in  society  is  meant, 
agreeable  to  universal  convention,  a  multiplication  of  those  in- 
terests which  occupy  us  in  our  daily  concerns— or  what  is  vul- 
garly called  property.  This  principle  works  by  exciting  us  to  do 
right  through  those  heavy  investments  of  our  own  which  would 
inevitably  suffer  were  we  to  do  wrong.  The  proposition  is  now 
clear,  nor  can  the  premises  readily  be  mistaken.  Happiness  is 
the  aim  of  society;  and  property,  or  a  vested  interest  in  society, 
is  the  best  pledge  of  our  disinterestedness  and  justice,  and  the 
best  qualification  for  its  proper  control.  It  follows  as  a  legitimate 
corollary,  that  a  multiplication  of  those  interests  will  increase  the 
stake,  and  render  us  more  and  more  worthy  of  the  trust  by 
elevating  us  as  near  as  may  be  to  the  pure  and  ethereal  condition 


of  the  angels."  This  may  fairly  be  taken  as  a  prophecy  of  the 
approach,  if  not  of  the  imminence,  of  celestial  luminaries  of  the 
quality  of  Vanderbilt,  Sage,  Drew,  and  Gould. 

As  a  check  to  the  social  danger,  he  envisaged  two  defenses, 
both  of  which  were  more  or  less  in  effect  at  the  time  of  his  writ- 
ing, and  both  of  which  crumbled  at  the  first  impact  of  the  enemy 
in  the  actual  event:  abstract  principle,  as  embodied  in  law,  es- 
pecially in  the  courts;  and  the  extension  into  other  parts  of  the 
country,  and  the  perpetuation,  of  an  hereditary  landed  aristoc- 
racy such  as  that  of  New  York— of  a  class  wealthy  enough  to 
enjoy  leisure  for  study  and  for  self-cultivation,  yet  not  wealthy 
enough,  and  too  cultivated  to  desire,  to  obtain  inordinate  power 
for  its  own  sake.  This  aristocracy  should  serve  as  a  guide,  a 
model,  and  a  stabilizing  force;  it  was  the  class  of  which  his 
American  Gentleman  was  the  type.  In  the  Littlepage  trilogy  he 
made  his  most  ambitious  and  successful  effort  to  portray  this 
aristocracy  as  it  had  existed  in  New  York  and  to  define  its  social 

In  connection  with  this  check  to  the  danger,  he  seems  to  have 
been  guilty  of  certain  errors.  He  failed  to  see  that  because  of 
technological  and  industrial  growth  and  because  of  the  west- 
ward expansion  which  was  receiving  only  at  the  time  of  his 
death  the  rapid  acceleration  which  was  to  effect  in  three  decades 
the  greatest  migration  in  the  annals,  whether  written  or  recon- 
structed, of  man,  a  new  financial  oligarchy  was  bound  to  arise 
so  rapidly  as  to  render  his  landed  aristocracy  negligible  and  cas- 
ually to  feed  upon  and  absorb  it.  Further,  he  apparently  believed 
it  possible  to  establish  in  actual  social  institutions  a  close  relation- 
ship between  worth  and  ability  on  the  one  hand,  and,  on  the 
other  hand,  wealth,  family,  and  political  influence,  whereas  all 
history  indicates  this  to  be  impossible.  At  the  end  of  his  life,  he 
still  preferred  democratic  government  to  any  other,  but  he  had 
little  hope  for  democracy.  Spiller  quotes  the  following  passage 
from  a  posthumous  fragment:2  "Nevertheless  the  community 
will  live  on,  suffer,  and  be  deluded;  it  may  even  fancy  itself 
almost  within  reach  of  perfection,  but  it  will  live  on  to  be  dis- 
*Ibid.,  pages  315-6. 

appointed.  There  is  no  such  thing  on  earth— and  the  only  real 
question  for  the  American  statesman  is,  to  measure  the  results 
of  different  defective  systems  for  the  government  of  the  human 
race.  We  are  far  from  saying  that  our  own,  with  all  its  flagrant 
and  obvious  defects,  will  be  the  worst,  more  especially  when  con- 
sidered solely  in  connection  with  whole  numbers;  though  we 
cannot  deny,  nor  do  we  wish  to  conceal,  the  bitterness  of  the 
wrongs  that  are  so  frequently  inflicted  by  the  many  on  the  few. 
This  is,  perhaps,  the  worst  species  of  tyranny.  He  who  suffers 
under  the  arbitrary  power  of  a  single  despot,  or  by  the  selfish 
exactions  of  a  privileged  few,  is  certain  to  be  sustained  by  the 
sympathies  of  the  masses.  But  he  who  is  crushed  by  the  masses 
themselves  must  look  beyond  the  limits  of  his  earthly  being  for 
consolation  and  support.  The  wrongs  committed  by  democracies 
are  of  the  most  cruel  character;  and  though  wanting  in  that  ap- 
parent violence  and  sternness  that  mark  the  course  of  law  in  the 
hands  of  narrower  governments,  for  it  has  no  need  of  this  se- 
venty, they  carry  with  them  in  their  course  all  the  feelings  that 
render  injustice  and  oppression  intolerable/' 

Of  these  wrongs  he  himself  had  suffered  more  than  the  com- 
mon portion.  Out  of  love  for  his  country  and  the  desire  to  per- 
petuate her  institutions,  he  had  criticized  such  of  her  vices  as 
appeared  to  imperil  her  life,  and  he  had  been  met  with  hatred. 
His  criticism  being  unanswerable,  and  the  hatred  therefore  in- 
tense, he  had  been  libelled  in  the  press,  and  though  for  fifteen 
years  he  had  won  suit  after  suit  in  the  courts  and  had  silenced 
his  detractors,  the  press  had  won  the  sympathy  of  the  multitude 
and  Cooper  had  lost  his  public.  He  had  defined  for  posterity 
the  dangers  which  threatened;  and  he  had  established  in  legal 
precedent  that  was  to  endure  until  late  in  the  century  the  laws 
of  libel  and  the  public  rights  of  the  private  gentleman;  but  he 
knew  at  the  end  that  he  could  not  stay  or  turn  the  enchanneled 
torrent  of  human  stupidity,  which,  when  eventually  we  regard 
it  behind  us,  we  know  as  history.  His  concern  was  primarily 
for  public  morality;  it  was  the  concern  of  the  statesman,  or  of 
the  historian,  first,  and  of  the  artist  but  secondarily;  this  concern 
was  already  obsolescent  in  America,  and  Henry  Adams  found  it 


a  generation  after  Cooper's  death  to  be  obsolete.  Its  disappear- 
ance, no  less  than  the  disappearance  of  the  theological  dogmas 
supporting  private  morality,  contributed  in  some  measure  to  the 
later  difficulties  of  Henry  James. 


The  Littlepage  novels— Satanstoe,  The  Chainbearer,  and  The 
Redskins— were  written  to  illustrate  a  thesis:  the  justice  of  the 
property-rights  of  the  landed  proprietors.  But  underlying  this 
is  a  more  general  thesis:  the  social  function  of  an  aristocracy, 
a  concept  based  on  the  old  but  dying  social  organization  of  New 
York.  To  illustrate  this  thesis,  he  was  forced  to  contrast  the  vir- 
tues of  the  aristocracy  with  the  defects  of  the  vulgar;  that  this 
contrast  represented  not  his  own  complete  view  of  the  two  social 
classes  thus  roughly  divided  but  an  arbitrary  isolation  of  qualities 
in  each  class  for  purposes  of  expository  effectiveness,  we  may 
see  readily  enough  in  his  other  novels:  in  his  novels  of  adven- 
ture, his  favbrite  characters  are  drawn  from  the  lower  classes, 
and  in  The  Bravo,  another  thesis  novel,  this  one  written  to  ex- 
hibit the  dangers  of  oligarchy,  his  heroic  figures  are  drawn  from 
the  lower  classes  and  his  corrupt  from  the  upper. 

Like  most  novelists  of  class-struggle,  he  separated  his  charac- 
ters pretty  sharply  into  the  more  or  less  Calvinistical  categories 
of  the  socially  saved  and  the  socially  damned.  The  only  Ameri- 
can novel  of  class-struggle  of  any  importance,  and  so  far  as  my 
reading  extends,  to  surpass  this  formula,  is  The  Octopus,  by 
Frank  Norris;  a  novel  in  which  the  social  struggle  sets  in  motion 
and  complicates  certain  dramas  of  private  morality,  so  that  we  get 
a  novel  of  a  ve?y  impressive  kind  in  spite  of  the  illiteracy  of  two 
thirds  of  the  writing,  and  in  spite  of  the  plunge  into  Emersonian 
mysticism  at  the  close,  in  which  the  author  endeavors  to  cancel 
the  drama  that  he  has  constructed.  Since  Cooper  is  dealing  pri- 
marily with  manners  and  not  with  morals— that  is,  with  society 
as  such,  and  not  with  the  salvation  of  the  soul— his  figures  must 
of  necessity  be  offered  as  representative  social  types  and  not  as 
moral  abstractions  like  the  figures  in  Hawthorne. 
1 80 

They  are  types  of  manners,  and  not  types  of  morality;  they  are 
thus  closer  to  the  surface  of  life,  to  the  daily  reality  which  we 
perceive  superficially  about  us;  and  we  are  tempted— or  more 
truly,  we  are  forced— to  regard  them  as  human  beings  primarily, 
not  as  dramatized  ideas.  But  as  human  beings  they  are  unduly 
simplified,  and  in  their  purity  of  type  inheres  a  certain  quality, 
very  slight  in  a  few  cases,  very  great  in  a  few,  and  moderately 
obvious  in  most,  of  priggishness  or  of  unreality.  Furthermore,  the 
dichotomy  of  Good  and  Evil  in  Hawthorne  is  essentially  so  seri- 
ous that  the  extreme  concentration  upon  it  which  is  implicit 
in  allegorical  simplification  appears  justified.  The  corresponding 
concepts  in  the  field  of  manners,  however,— the  Genteel  and  the 
Vulgar— appear  at  a  considerable  remove  from  the  spiritual  seri- 
ousness of  the  Good  and  the  Evil;  we  can  demonstrate  certain  im- 
perfect relationships  between  the  two  pairs  of  concepts  easily 
enough  in  a  rational  fashion,  but  the  second  pair  is  derivative 
and  therefore  inferior,  and  it  is  bound  to  be  felt  as  inferior  when 
perceived  in  action;  so  that  a  concentration  by  Cooper  upon  the 
second  pair  of  abstractions  comparable,  though  far  less  intense, 
to  the  concentration  upon  the  first  pair  by  Hawthorne,  is  certain 
in  itself  to  create  in  some  degree  an  atmosphere  of  priggishness. 
The  vigor  with  which  Cooper  realizes  at  least  a  few  characters 
and  patterns  of  action,  and  the  sense  with  which  he  leaves  us 
when  the  books  have  long  been  read  and  laid  away,  of  a  rich 
and  varied  way  of  life,  are  sufficient  evidence  of  the  reality  of 
his  genius,  for  these  ends  are  achieved  in  the  face  of  obstacles. 

This  effect  of  priggishness  is  sure  to  be  intensified  in  an  era 
like  our  own,  in  which  the  concept  of  a  traditional  aristocracy  is 
obsolete  and  even  as  an  historical  phenomenon  is  seldom  under- 
stood. For  the  modern  American  who  has  let  himself  be  seduced 
by  any  of  the  absolute  categories  of  our  own  period— more  es- 
pecially, in  this  case,  of  the  radical  labor  movement,  since  these 
categories  are  diametrically  opposed  to  those  of  Cooper— an  under- 
standing of  Cooper,  and  I  mean  an  understanding  of  Cooper 
merely  as  an  artist  portraying  in  some  measure  a  life  which  he 
knew,  may  prove  difficult  or  even  impossible.  Cooper's  dichotomy 
of  the  Genteel  and  the  Vulgar  may  appear  to  correspond  pre- 


cisely  to  the  later  dichotomy  of  the  Parasitic  and  the  Productive, 
the  emphasis  having  been  shifted  from  intrinsic  qualities  to  what 
is  conceived  as  material  effectiveness.  For  any  modern  American, 
an  act  of  sympathetic  historical  imagination  is  necessary  to  under- 
stand Cooper;  for  the  American  whose  perceptions  are  governed 
by  a  scheme  as  simple  as  Cooper's,  but  the  exact  reverse  of  it, 
this  act  will  presumably  be  impossible. 

Because  of  the  simplification,  the  central  figures  of  the  Little- 
page  novels— the  Littlepages  and  their  respective  loves— were 
doomed  to  be  uninteresting,  even  if  Cooper  had  not  had  an 
unqualified  penchant  for  conventional  sentimental  romance  as 
the  structural  principle  in  plot.  The  secondary  figures,  even 
when  employed  more  or  less  obviously  for  illustrative  purposes, 
are  frequently  more  successful.  The  best  single  creation  of  the 
Littlepage  novels— a  creation  rivalling  Natty  Bumppo— is  Jason 
Newcome,  the  devious  and  moralizing  New  Englander.  In  Sa- 
tanstoe,  the  secondary  and  tragic  love  affair  of  Guert  Ten  Eyck 
and  of  Mary  Wallace  is  moving  and  suggests  complexity  and 
fullness  of  character  not  found  in  any  other  love  story  in  Cooper. 
Guert,  Mary  Wallace,  the  loping  dominie,  Andries  Coejemans, 
and  in  a  smaller  measure  the  somewhat  melodramatic  but  still 
effective  Aaron  Thousandacres,  are  memorable  creations. 

In  the  first  two  novels,  especially,  of  the  Littlepage  trilogy, 
Cooper  endeavored  to  underline  certain  aspects  of  New  York 
society  which  he  believed  deserving  of  preservation  and  exten- 
sion; and  in  the  third  of  the  series,  The  Redskins,  he  sought 
primarily  to  demonstrate  the  opposing  evil,  the  evil  of  confusing 
the  whim  of  the  mob  with  the  principle  of  democracy,  a  subject 
with  which  he  dealt  in  other  late  novels:  in  The  Crater,  in  Home 
as  Found,  and  especially  in  The  Ways  of  the  Hour,  a  novel  in 
which  is  portrayed  in  a  manner  of  the  greatest  accuracy  so  far 
as  the  social  phenomena  are  concerned,  though  profoundly  un- 
satisfactory as  art,  the  way  in  which  criminal  justice  may  be 
subverted  by  unrestrained  popular  meddling.  In  The  Redskins, 
Home  as  Found,  and  The  Ways  of  the  Hour  Cooper  is  nearly 
at  his  worst  as  a  novelist— his  worst,  absolutely  considered,  is  the 
initial  effort,  Precaution,  and  its  nearest  rival,  perhaps,  is  Mer 

cedes  of  Castille—for  in  these  three  works,  he  is  not  displaying 
a  way  of  life,  but  is  demonstrating  assorted  vices  and  his  tend- 
ency to  overemphasis  becomes  so  extreme  as  to  destroy  both  plot 
and  character.  The  criticism  offered  in  these  books,  however, 
is  both  just  and  penetrating,  and  the  reader  with  taste  and  pa- 
tience can  cull  from  them  if  he  so  desires  a  collection  of  epigrams 
as  sound,  as  biting,  and  as  numerous  as  he  is  likely  to  find  in  any 
other  three  volumes  in  English.  The  Monikins,  a  satirical  alle- 
gory on  the  subject  of  various  social  systems,  though  tiresome  in 
the  main,  offers  the  same  fragmentary  rewards,  and  perhaps  in 
a  larger  measure,  in  addition  to  the  remarkable  summary  of  the 
life  and  death  of  the  elder  Goldencalf,  with  which  the  work 

The  Monikins  has  commonly  been  regarded  as  one  of  the 
worst  of  Cooper's  efforts,  and  even  those  who  have  found  it  in 
one  manner  or  another  interesting  have  objected  to  the  narrator's 
account  of  his  pedigree  and  of  his  childhood,  but  there  is  some- 
thing horrible  in  the  account,  which,  brief  and  fragmentary  as 
the  passage  may  be,  is  unrivalled  in  its  particular  fashion  in  Eng- 
lish prose.  "I  have  generally  considered  myself  on  a  level  with  the 
most  ancient  gentlemen  of  Europe,  on  the  score  of  descent,"  says 
the  narrator,  "few  families  being  more  clearly  traced  into  the 
mist  of  time  than  that  of  which  I  am  a  member.  My  descent  from 
my  father  is  undeniably  established  by  the  parish  register  as  well 
as  by  the  will  of  that  person  himself,  and  I  believe  no  man  could 
more  directly  prove  the  truth  of  the  whole  career  of  his  family 
than  it  is  in  my  power  to  show  that  of  my  ancestor  up  to  the 
hour  when  he  was  found,  in  the  second  year  of  his  age,  crying 
with  cold  and  hunger  in  the  parish  of  St.  Giles,  in  the  city  of 
Westminster,  and  in  the  United  Kingdom  of  Great  Britain. "  In 
the  same  tone  of  precise  and  unwavering  respect,  the  career  of 
the  elder  Goldencalf,  financial  and  domestic,  and  fearful  in  its 
intense  inhumanity,  is  carried  to  its  close:  "The  difficult  breath- 
ing, haggard  countenance,  and  broken  utterance  of  my  father 
struck  me  with  awe.  This  was  the  first  death-bed  by  which  I  had 
ever  stood;  and  the  admonishing  picture  of  time  passing  into 
eternity  was  indelibly  stamped  on  my  memory.  It  was  not  only 


a  death-bed  scene,  but  it  was  a  family  death-bed  scene.  I  know 
not  how  it  was,  but  I  thought  my  ancestor  looked  more  like  the 
Goldencalfs  than  I  had  ever  seen  him  look  before/'  Thomas 
Goldencalf  is  literally  on  the  brink  of  eternity  throughout  the 
short  narrative;  for,  as  his  son,  the  supposed  narrator,  informs 
us,  he  rose  directly  and  with  no  antecedents  from  the  obscurity 
of  time,  and  his  life  was  reduced  so  purely  to  a  single  passion, 
one  might  say  to  a  single  perception,  that  he  existed  but  as  a 
silhouette  upon  the  void  and  sank  as  directly  into  the  void  as  he 
had  arisen  from  it.  The  cold  and  formal  irony  of  the  prose 
achieves  at  times  a  metaphysical  violence  which  puts  one  in 
mind  of  Pope. 

The  Bravo,  one  of  the  most  important  of  the  novels  of  social 
criticism,  suffers  in  certain  respects  by  comparison  with  the  first 
two  novels  of  the  Littlepage  trilogy:  no  single  Italian  character  is 
realized  with  the  same  effect  of  intimacy  as  that  achieved  in  the 
best  American  characters,  although  no  major  character,  perhaps, 
is  quite  so  simplified  as  are  the  representatives  of  the  Littlepage 
family  itself /for  the  conception  of  The  Bravo  does  not  enforce 
such  simplification.  The  protagonist  is  a  more  or  less  normal 
man,  endeavoring  to  maintain  his  integrity  in  a  struggle  with  a 
variety  of  hidden  evils.  He  is  essentially  active  and  individual, 
and  not  a  social  type,  although  the  subtleties  of  his  surface  are 
not  rendered  with  any  such  perception  as  that  displayed  in  the 
creation  of  Jason  Newcome  and  of  Guert  Ten  Eyck.  The  man- 
ner in  which  the  aristocrats  themselves  are  corrupted  by  their 
fears  of  each  other— the  subtle  inter-relation  and  inter-propaga- 
tion among  such  vices  as  avarice,  desire  for  power,  and  fear- 
offers  a  moral  portrait  worthy  of  Hawthorne. 

The  stylistic  tone  of  The  Bravo  is  of  the  slightly  sentimental 
variety  at  the  time  regarded  as  indispensable  to  historical  ro- 
mance; this  is  no  doubt  a  defect,  but  the  tone  is  at  least  con- 
sistently maintained,  so  that  once  one  has  become  familiar  with 
it,  one  can  in  a  measure  forget  it,  and  can  appreciate  subtleties 
of  perception  much  as  in  any  other  style.  The  fifteenth  chapter, 
for  example,  describing  the  murder  of  Antonio,  is  very  impres- 
sive as  one  comes  to  it  in  the  actual  narrative,  but  is  much  less 

impressive  if  one  reads  it  in  isolation.  Coming  to  it  from  the  be- 
ginning of  the  story,  one  is  not  only  familiar  with  the  style,  but 
one  is  acutely  aware  of  the  symbolic  value  of  the  moonlit  water, 
and  of  fragments  of  action  discernible  upon  it,  in  this  narrative 
of  secret  and  evasive  evil.  In  isolation  the  passage  appears  to 
display  something  of  the  over-wrought  affectation  of  Poe;  in  its 
context,  the  tone  is  supported,  as  it  is  never  supported  in  Poe, 
by  a  comprehensible  theme,  so  that  the  details,  melodramatic, 
perhaps,  if  read  alone,  are  sustained  by  a  genuinely  dramatic 
significance.  The  two  companion  pieces  of  The  Bravo,  The 
Heidenmauer  and  The  Headsman,  are  less  remarkable,  though 
The  Heidenmauer  contains  a  fairly  memorable  character  in  the 
Abbot  of  Limburg. 


In  the  Leatherstocking  Series,  as  in  the  other  novels  of  American 
history  and  of  frontier  adventure,  and  as  in  the  sea  stories  (ex- 
cept The  Crater},  we  have  nothing  whatever  to  do  with  social 
criticism,  or  at  least  nothing  of  importance.  One  of  the  Leather- 
stocking  Series,  however,  The  Pioneers,  the  fourth  in  the  series 
but  the  first  to  be  written,  should  be  mentioned  in  connection 
with  Satanstoe  and  The  Chainhearer  as  one  of  Cooper's  three 
most  interesting  novels  of  manners;  like  the  first  two  Littlepage 
novels,  it  is  a  portrait  of  life  on  the  frontier,  but  in  a  considerable 
measure  of  the  semi-aristocratic  frontiersman.  These  three  works 
should  be  regarded  as  a  prelude  to  such  works  by  Mrs.  Wharton 
as  the  four  novelettes  of  the  Old  New  York  Series  and  The 
Age  of  Innocence;  in  spite  of  great  defects  they  have  great  vigor, 
and  as  regards  the  portrayal  of  their  particular  place  and  period 
they  have  no  rivals  and  must  always  remain  as  a  part  of  our  his- 
torical literature  if  as  nothing  more. 

The  inferiority  of  plot  in  Cooper  to  the  incidental  is  tacitly 
recognized  by  him  in  the  fact  that  the  one  figure  who  unifies  all 
five  of  the  Leatherstocking  novels  is  a  secondary  figure  in  all  of 
them;  in  each  novel  he  is  the  practical  abettor  of  the  loves  of  the 
pair  about  whom  the  conventional  plot  is  constructed,  although 

in  The  Pathfinder  he  appears  for  a  time  as  a  rival  in  love  to  his 

These  novels  are  familiar  to  every  reader,  and  comment  upon 
them  may  appear  superfluous;  nevertheless,  familiarity  appears 
to  have  bred  in  this  case  a  good  deal  of  contempt,  and  certain 
things,  perhaps,  need  to  be  stated  briefly. 

It  is  the  isolated  adventures  of  Natty,  and  the  continuity  of  his 
character,  that  bring  the  novels  to  life;  although  there  are  other 
excellent  characterizations,  especially  of  the  residents  of  the  fron- 
tier village  of  The  Pioneers,  and  of  the  Indians  Mahtoree  and 
Hardheart,  and  of  the  emigrant  family  of  The  Prairie.  And  here 
we  begin  to  encounter  some  of  the  strange  paradoxes  of  Cooper's 
achievement;  for  if  Natty  is  his  greatest  single  achievement— 
and  great  he  is,  a  great  national  myth,  with  a  life  over  and  above 
the  life  of  the  books  in  which  he  appears,  a  reality  surpassing 
that  even  of  an  historical  figure  such  as  Daniel  Boone— yet  only 
two  of  these  novels,  The  Pioneers  and  conceivably  The  Prairie, 
could  rank  among  Cooper's  half  dozen  best  individual  novels. 
Furthermore/the  best  single  passage  of  prose  in  Cooper  is  prob- 
ably the  seventh  chapter  of  The  Deerslayer,.  a  book  which  dis- 
plays few  other  serious  merits,  and  which  even  as  a  story  purely 
of  adventure  is  far  inferior  in  plot  and  in  movement  to  half  a 
dozen  other  stories  by  Cooper.  The  next  best  prose  in  the  series, 
and  perhaps  in  Cooper,  though  this  is  doubtful,  is  probably  to 
be  found  in  the  first  and  last  chapters  of  The  Prairie,  heavily 
dramatic  as  they  may  conceivably  be.  The  best  single  plot  of 
adventure  in  Cooper  is  beyond  a  doubt  that  of  The  Last  of  the 
Mohicans,  but  the  style  in  this  work  is  so  consistently  florid  and 
redundant  that  in  spite  of  the  action,  in  spite  of  the  magnificent 
timing  of  many  scenes,  in  spite  of  a  certain  amount  of  fairly 
respectable  characterization,  the  book  nowhere  rises  to  a  level  of 
seriousness.  It  is  curious  that  the  tone  of  conventional  romance 
which  vitiates  a  great  part  of  his  effort  should  have  accumulated 
so  unfortunately  here,  for  there  are  passages  in  other  books  in  the 
series  which  are  not  only  beautiful  but  beautiful  in  a  restrained 
and  classical  fashion,  and  which  display  great  richness  of  moral 

1 86 

The  seventh  chapter  of  The  Deerslayer,  or  more  properly  its 
first  incident,  Natty's  encounter  with  the  Indian  whom  he  is 
forced  to  kill,  is  probably  as  great  an  achievement  of  its  length 
as  one  will  find  in  American  fiction  outside  of  Melville.  The 
prose  is  plain  and  factual,  yet  by  rendering  with  a  kind  of  bare 
precision  the  drifting  of  the  canoes,  the  motion  of  the  water,  and 
the  caution  with  which  Natty  views  the  edge  of  the  forest, 
Cooper  communicates  with  a  power  that  has  rarely  been  equalled 
the  tremendous  and  impersonal  quiet  of  the  virgin  American 
wilderness:  "The  air,  for  wind  it  could  scarcely  be  called,  was 
still  light,  it  is  true,  but  it  had  increased  a  little  in  the  course  of 
the  night,  and  as  the  canoes  were  mere  feathers  on  the  water, 
they  had  drifted  twice  the  expected  distance;  and,  what  was  still 
more  dangerous,  had  approached  so  near  the  base  of  the  moun- 
tain that  here  rose  precipitously  from  the  eastern  shore  as  to 
render  the  carols  of  the  birds  plainly  audible.  This  was  not  the 
worst.  The  third  canoe  had  taken  the  same  direction,  and  \va^ 
slowly  drifting  toward  a  point  where  it  must  inevitably  touch, 
unless  turned  aside  by  a  shift  of  wind  or  human  hands.  In  other 
respects  nothing  presented  itself  to  attract  attention  or  to  awaken 

One  of  the  canoes  goes  aground,  and  Natty  must  rescue  it,  in 
spite  of  the  danger  to  himself,  in  order  to  insure  the  safety  of  his 
friends.  "If  anyone  had  been  lying  in  wait  for  the  arrival  of  the 
waif,  he  must  be  seen,  and  the  utmost  caution  in  approaching 
the  shore  became  indispensable;  if  no  one  was  in  ambush,  hurry 
was  unnecessary.  The  point  being  nearly  diagonally  opposite  the 
Indian  encampment,  he  hoped  the  last,  though  the  former  was 
not  only  possible  but  probable;  for  the  savages  were  prompt  in 
adopting  all  the  expedients  of  their  particular  modes  of  warfare, 
and  quite  likely  had  many  scouts  searching  the  shores  for  crafts 
to  carry  them  off  to  the  castle.  As  a  glance  at  the  lake  from  any 
height  or  projection  would  expose  the  smallest  object  on  its  sur- 
face, there  was  little  hope  that  either  of  the  canoes  could  pass 
unseen;  and  Indian  sagacity  needed  no  instruction  to  tell  which 
way  a  boat  or  a  log  would  drift  when  the  direction  of  the  wind 
was  known.  As  Deerslayer  drew  nearer  and  nearer  to  the  land, 


the  stroke  of  his  paddle  grew  slower,  his  eye  became  more  watch- 
ful, and  his  ears  and  nostrils  almost  dilated  with  the  effort  to 
detect  any  lurking  danger.  'Twas  a  trying  moment  for  a  novice, 
nor  was  there  the  encouragement  which  even  the  timid  some- 
times feel  when  conscious  of  being  observed  and  commended. 
He  was  entirely  alone,  thrown  on  his  own  resources,  and  was 
cheered  by  no  friendly  eye,  emboldened  by  no  encouraging  voice. 
Notwithstanding  all  these  circumstances,  the  most  experienced 
veteran  in  forest  warfare  could  not  have  behaved  better.  Equally 
free  from  recklessness  and  hesitation,  his  advance  was  marked  by 
a  sort  of  philosophical  prudence  that  appeared  to  render  him 
superior  to  all  motives  but  those  which  were  best  calculated  to 
effect  his  purpose.  Such  was  the  commencement  of  a  career  in 
forest  exploits  that  afterward  rendered  this  man,  in  his  way,  and 
under  the  limits  of  his  habits  and  opportunities,  as  renowned  as 
many  a  hero  whose  name  has  adorned  the  pages  of  works  more 
celebrated  than  legends  simple  as  ours  can  ever  become."  The 
explicit  comment  of  the  historian  at  the  close  of  this  passage  is 
one  of  the  greatest  triumphs  of  Cooper's  rhetoric;  the  quietness 
of  the  prose  and  of  the  scene  is  not  impaired,  but  the  prose  sud- 
denly takes  on  a  quality  of  universality  and  of  grandeur  such  as 
to  prepare  one  for  the  metaphysical  quality  of  the  action  shortly 
to  follow. 

The  Indian  in  ambush  fires  and  misses,  attacks,  and  then,  be- 
ing outwitted  by  Deerslayer  but  allowed  to  escape,  retreats  to 
cover;  Deerslayer  is  quickly  on  shore  and  behind  a  tree.  Then 
commences  the  series  of  hesitations  on  the  part  of  Deerslayer  to 
kill  this  man,  hesitations  which  arouse  the  wonder  and  then  the 
contempt  of  the  Indian.  Deerslayer  has  never  killed  a  man,  yet 
he  has  embarked  upon  the  career  of  a  professional  scout,  and 
this  Indian  is  his  enemy.  His  wonder,  his  hesitation,  the  infal- 
libility of  his  instincts  and  muscular  reactions,  the  immense 
passivity  of  the  morning  wilderness,  give  the  scene  something  of 
the  tenderness  and  wonder  of  idyllic  first  love.  But  this  is  first 
death,  and  not  first  love;  and  the  act  must  be  committed  in  soli- 
tude and  with  deliberation.  Deerslayer's  consciousness  of  the 
significance  of  the  act  which  he  momently  withholds,  and  the 
1 88 

pure  spiritual  isolation  of  the  consciousness,  the  quiet  clarity  with 
which  the  whole  is  rendered,  constitute,  surely,  one  of  the  jnost 
remarkable  passages  in  our  literature. 

After  some  maneuvering,  Deerslayer  persuades  the  Indian  to 
give  up  the  canoes  without  bloodshed,  or  he  believes  that  he  per- 
suades him,  and  then,  after  a  momentary  suspicion  of  treachery, 
he  pushes  off  from  shore:  ''This  distrust,  however,  seemed  to  be 
altogether  uncalled  for,  and,  as  if  ashamed  to  have  entertained  it, 
the  young  man  averted  his  look,  and  stepped  carelessly  up  to 
his  boat.  Here  he  began  to  push  the  canoe  from  the  shore,  and 
to  make  his  other  preparations  for  departing.  He  might  have 
been  thus  employed  a  minute,  when,  happening  to  turn  his  face 
toward  the  land,  his  quick  and  certain  eye  told  him  at  a  glance, 
the  imminent  jeopardy  in  which  his  life  was  placed.  The  black, 
ferocious  eyes  of  the  savage  were  glancing  on  him,  like  those  of 
the  crouching  tiger,  through  a  small  opening  in  the  bushes,  and 
the  muzzle  of  his  rifle  seemed  already  to  be  opening  in  a  line 
with  his  own  body. 

"Then,  indeed,  the  long  practice  of  Deerslayer  as  a  hunter  did 
him  good  service.  Accustomed  to  fire  with  the  deer  on  the  bound, 
and  often  when  the  precise  position  of  the  animal's  body  had  in 
a  manner  to  be  guessed  at,  he  used  the  same  expedients  here. 
To  cock  and  poise  his  rifle  were  the  acts  of  a  single  moment  and 
a  single  motion;  then,  aiming  almost  without  sighting,  he  fired 
into  the  bushes  where  he  knew  a  body  ought  to  be  in  order  to 
sustain  the  appalling  countenance  which  alone  was  visible.  There 
was  not  time  to  raise  the  piece  any  higher  or  to  take  a  more 
deliberate  aim.  So  rapid  were  his  movements  that  both  parties 
discharged  their  pieces  at  the  same  instant,  the  concussions  min- 
gling in  one  report.  The  mountains,  indeed,  gave  back  but  a 
single  echo.  Deerslayer  dropped  his  piece,  and  stood,  with  head 
erect,  steady  as  one  of  the  pines  in  the  calm  of  a  June  morning, 
watching  the  result,  while  the  savage  gave  the  yell  that  has  be- 
come historical  for  its  appalling  influence,  leaped  through  the 
bushes,  and  came  bounding  across  the  open  ground,  flourishing  a 
tomahawk.  Still  Deerslayer  moved  not,  but  stood  with  his  un- 
loaded rifle  fallen  against  his  shoulders,  while,  with  a  hunter's 


habits,  his  hands  were  mechanically  feeling  for  the  powder-horn 
and  charger.  When  about  forty  feet  from  his  enemy,  the  savage 
hurled  his  keen  weapon;  but  it  was  with  an  eye  so  vacant,  and 
a  hand  so  unsteady  and  feeble,  that  the  young  man  caught  it  as 
it  was  flying  past  him.  At  that  instant  the  Indian  staggered  and 
fell  his  whole  length  on  the  ground/'  We  have  thus  the  instan- 
taneous coincidence  of  intuition  and  determinant  action,  and  the 
quick  rush  and  ebbing  of  life,  as  symbolized  by  the  case  with 
which  the  hatchet  falls  into  the  hand  of  Deerslayer;  and  there- 
after a  brief  passage  in  which  the  Indian  dies  in  Deerslayer's 
arms  at  the  edge  of  the  lake,  a  passage  in  which  the  quiet  of  the 
morning  is  reestablished.  One  should  mention  also  Deerslayer's 
perception  of  the  opening  of  the  rifle  muzzle,  a  fine  detail,  by 
means  of  which  his  perception  of  the  Indian's  aim  is  communi- 

The  skill  of  this  backwoodsman,  and  the  skill  as  well  as  other 
characteristics  attributed  by  Cooper  to  the  Indians,  are  frequently 
derided,  but  'probably  with  small  justice.  In  any  environment 
certain  particular  skills  will  be  generally  developed,  which  are 
foreign  to  other  environments,  and  the  skills  required  in  the 
wilderness  are  now  far  away  from  us  and  of  their  nature  we  can 
have  but  very  small  understanding.  Yet  the  feats  performed  in 
Cooper's  novels  with  the  canoe  are  of  no  greater  moment  than 
the  feats  performed  daily  on  our  highways  with  much  more  dan- 
gerous engines,  sometimes  disastrously,  often  with  success;  they 
are  as  nothing  compared  to  the  daily  feats  of  the  army  flyer.  We 
should  remember,  moreover,  that  if  any  particular  way  of  life 
long  exists,  or  even  if  any  particular  exercise  is  long  practiced 
with  assiduity,  there  will  inevitably  arise,  once  or  twice  or  oc- 
casionally more  often  in  a  generation,  an  individual  of  a  skill 
such  as  far  to  surpass  the  powers  of  credible  description,  The 
boxer  of  genius,  or  even  the  billiard-player  of  genius,  may  per- 
form feats  which  if  recounted  in  detail  would  seem  far  less  plau- 
sible than  the  most  extraordinary  feats  of  Leatherstocking. 

Furthermore,  as  to  feats  of  woodmanship,  the  historic  feats  of 
the  partisan  leader,  Rogers,  as  described  by  the  meticulous  Park- 


man  in  Montcalm  and  Wolfe,  surpass  anything  imagined  by 
Cooper.  And  Parkman,  who  objects  to  Cooper's  treatment  of 
Indian  character,  especially  in  regard  to  the  capacity  delineated 
for  heroic  action  and  for  love  at  a  higher  level  than  that  of 
physical  passion,  yet  recounts  in  The  Conspiracy  of  Pontiac  the 
case  of  a  young  Indian  who  followed  his  white  mistress  back  to 
the  edge  of  the  settlements  when  she  had  been  captured  by  a 
marauding  band  of  whites,  in  order  to  be  with  her  as  long  as  pos- 
sible and  to  hunt  for  her;  and  his  account  of  Pontiac  himself 
establishes  that  remarkable  Ottawa  not  only  as  a  man  of  genius 
but  as  thoroughly  capable  of  heroic  action.  Our  historic  knowl- 
edge of  Tecumseh,  of  King  Philip,  of  Massassoit,  of  the  humane 
and  heroic  Canonchet,  should  justify  Cooper  beyond  all  question 
at  least  as  regards  the  general  outlines  of  his  characterization. 
That  such  characters  were  exceptional  among  the  Indians  goes 
without  saying,  but  they  would  have  been  exceptional  anywhere; 
and  that  there  were  aspects  of  Indian  life  on  which  Cooper 
seldom  dwells  is  equally  certain,  but  it  is  also  true  that  the  houses 
of  Shakespeare's  London  were  in  general,  drafty,  smoky,  dirty, 
infected  with  disease,  and  full  of  vermin,  and  Shakespeare  is  not 
in  general  blamed  for  dealing  primarily  with  the  spiritual  prob- 
lems of  such  men  as  Macbeth  and  Coriolanus. 

Anyone  who  will  take  the  trouble  to  acquaint  himself  with  the 
works  of  Parkman— and  anyone  who  will  not  is  to  be  commis- 
erated in  general  and  distrusted  in  particular  as  a  commentator 
on  certain  aspects  of  American  literature  and  history— or  anyone 
who  will  read  a  dozen  odd  journals  of  life  in  the  wilderness,  will 
scarcely,  I  imagine,  object  very  seriously  to  this  aspect  of  Cooper 
on  purely  factual  grounds.  Cooper  errs  not  in  the  plausibility  of 
his  facts,  but  in  relying  so  heavily  for  the  maintenance  of  inter- 
est on  so  limited  a  range  of  facts,  and  frequently  in  the  sentimen- 
tal and  inflated  redundancy  with  which  the  facts  are  rendered; 
and  so  far  as  the  Indians  are  concerned,  this  redundancy  is  not 
without  its  verisimilitude,  whatever  we  may  think  of  its  absolute 
merits  as  style,  for  the  eloquence  of  the  Indians  in  their  more 
formal  and  heroic  moments,  as  we  find  it  recorded  by  those  who 


knew  them  intimately  and  in  their  primitive  condition,  is  not 
as  remote  from  the  redundant  passages  of  Cooper  as  one  might 
at  first  glance  suppose. 

This  particular  defect  of  style  damages  white  and  Indian  char- 
acter about  equally,  so  far  as  its  effect  on  the  modern  reader  is 
concerned— and  indeed,  though  the  Indian,  historically  consid- 
ered, may  actually  have  employed  a  roughly  similar  style  on  cer- 
tain occasions,  one  may  reasonably  protest  that  in  the  interests 
of  true  eloquence  he  should  not  have  done  so— but  in  some  of 
the  novels,  in  which  the  style  is  not  pushed  to  the  appalling 
limits  reached  in  The  Last  of  the  Mohicans,  one  becomes,  as  I 
have  said  in  discussing  The  Bravo,  more  or  less  accustomed  to  it, 
and  forgets  it.  This  is  largely  true  of  The  Wept  of  Wish-ton- 
Wish,  a  novel  containing  three  of  Coopers  best  Indian  Char- 
acters, all  of  them  based  on  historic  Indians:  Uncas,  the  Pequot 
or  Mohegan,  who  betrayed  his  chieftain,  Sassacus,  sold  himself 
to  the  English,  and  helped  in  the  destruction  of  his  own  people, 
first  in  the  Pequot  War,  and  later,  as  an  old  man,  in  King  Philip's 
War;  Philip,  or  Metacom,  the  Wampanoag;  and  Canonchet,  the 
Narraganset.  One  of  the  better  scenes  in  Cooper,  in  spite  of  the 
sentimental  rhetoric  is  that  in  which  Uncas,  who  feels  himself 
to  be  judged  a  traitor  by  his  captive  Canonchet,  whose  father, 
Miantonomo,  he  had  murdered  years  before,  endeavors  to  break 
the  moral  character  of  Canonchet  by  subtle  spiritual  torture  be- 
fore murdering  him.  The  conception  of  Canonchet's  white  wife, 
who  recovers  only  at  the  moment  before  death  her  memory  of 
childhood  and  her  childish  fear  of  the  forest  and  of  the  Indian 
as  the  symbols  of  darkness  and  of  evil,  is  a  conception  which 
deserved  a  more  successful  rendering,  but  which  is  rendered  with 
sufficient  success  to  merit  more  appreciation  than  it  has  received.3 
This  novel  is  notable  also  for  certain  passages  of  historical  ex- 
position, especially  in  the  earlier  chapters;  passages  in  which 
Cooper  appears  as  one  of  the  last  representatives  of  the  great 
tradition  of  formal  historical  narrative,  of  which  Hume,  Gibbon, 
and  Macaulay  are  the  masters.  The  passages  are  brief  and  scat- 

8  Parkman   recounts   in   Pontiac,   Chapter   XXVIII,   an   historical   incident 
closely  though  incompletely  resembling  this. 


tered;  they  show  the  tradition  in  a  state  of  decay,  and  corroded 
by  sentiment;  but  they  are  still  in  the  great  tradition,  and  as  prose 
they  probably  surpass  most  passages  of  comparable  length  to  be 
found  in  Prescott  or  even  in  Parkman;  they  are  a  moving,  if 
melancholy,  spectacle. 

One  other  novel  of  frontier  adventure,  The  Oak  Openings, 
deserves  particular  attention,  if  only  because  of  its  extraordinary 
difference  from  the  other  novels  on  similar  subjects,  As  a  story 
of  simple  adventure,  it  is  one  of  Cooper's  best;  as  a  portrait  of 
the  Indian  in  his  more  familiar  and  less  heroic  moments,  it  is 
both  convincing  and  amusing  and  has  no  parallel  in  Cooper  or 
elsewhere  in  our  literature.  The  scenes  in  which  the  assembled 
chieftains  discuss  the  anthropological  theories  of  the  errant  clergy- 
man and  conclude  that  the  Indians  are  not  descended  from  the 
lost  tribes  of  Israel  are  especially  admirable.  "I  am  a  Pottawat- 
tamie," says  Crowsfeather.  "My  brothers  know  that  tribe.  It  is 
not  a  tribe  of  Jews,  but  a  tribe  of  Injins.  It  is  a  great  tribe.  It 
never  was  lost.  It  cannot  be  lost.  No  tribe  better  knows  all  the 
paths,  and  all  the  best  routes  to  every  point  where  it  wishes  to 
go.  It  is  foolish  to  say  you  can  lose  a  Pottawattamie.  A  duck 
would  be  as  likely  to  lose  itself  as  a  Pottawattamie.  I  do  not  speak 
for  the  Ottawas;  I  speak  for  the  Pottawattamies.  .  .  .  We  are 
not  lost;  we  are  not  Jews.  I  have  done." 


In  addition  to  the  novels  which  I  have  mentioned  and  a  few 
others  of  similar  nature,  there  remain  a  somewhat  miscellaneous 
lot  of  novels  superficially  of  a  class  in  that  they  are  all  novels 
of  adventure  and  all  save  two,  The  Spy  and  Lionel  Lincoln,  of 
adventure  at  sea. 

The  Spy,  a  very  early  and  fairly  popular  work,  is  a  second 
rate  novel  of  adventure,  as  are  also  Homeward  Bound?  The  Pilot, 
and  The  Two  Admirals.  The  Red  Rover,  a  sea  story,  is  probably 
the  best  tale  of  adventure,  questions  of  style  aside,  to  be  found 
in  Cooper  except  for  The  Last  of  the  Mohicans,  but  like  The 
Last  of  the  Mohicans  it  has  few  other  merits.  Afloat  and  Ashore, 


and  its  sequel,  Miles  Wallingford,  combine  fair  sea-adventure, 
one  of  the  best  incidents  being  based  on  an  actual  occurrence 
recounted  by  Irving  in  his  Astoria,  with  a  fairly  pleasant  and 
moderately  sentimental  portrait  of  early  New  York  manners. 
Jack  Tier  is  a  novel  of  sentimental  adventure  at  sea  which  is 
chiefly  remarkable  for  the  portrait  of  the  extraordinary  figure 
from  whom  the  book  takes  its  title;  among  the  sea  stories,  it  has 
something  of  the  casual  charm  displayed  by  The  Oak  Openings 
among  the  novels  of  the  wilderness.  The  Sea  Lions,  though  dif- 
fuse and  full  of  irrelevancies,  offers  a  portrait  of  Yankee  avarice 
in  a  struggle  with  death  in  the  antarctic  circle,  which  deserved 
a  more  careful  treatment. 

Three  other  stones— Lionel  Lincoln,  Wing-and-Wing,.  and  es- 
pecially The  Water-Witch— are  remarkable  for  their  rhetorical 
experiments,  and  display  Cooper  in  a  capacity  in  which  he  has 
never  been  seriously  studied  or  even  regarded. 

In  Lionel  Lincoln,  the  character  in  connection  with  whom  the 
experimental  rhetoric  is  most  often  successful,  is  Polwarth,  a 
British  officer  stationed  in  Boston,  a  gentleman  by  birth  and 
courageous  by  nature,  but  stout,  overfond  of  eating,  and  some- 
what talkative.  Polwarth  must  beyond  any  question  be  the  proto- 
type of  W.  G.  Simms'  Porgy,  and  though  Cooper  makes  less 
use  of  Polwarth  than  Simms  makes  of  his  southerner,  Cooper's 
portrait  is  in  some  ways  the  more  effective.  Polwarth  speaks  a 
species  of  semi-Elizabethan  prose  which  is  not  without  its  wit 
and  its  poetry,  and  of  which  the  very  affectation  has  a  real  stylis- 
tic charm.  The  following  passage,  taken  from  the  ninth  chapter, 
is  descriptive  of  the  removal  of  the  British  troops  from  Boston  the 
night  before  the  battle  of  Lexington : 

"Polwarth  had  established  himself  by  the  side  of  Lionel,  much 
to  the  ease  of  his  limbs,  and  as  they  moved  slowly  into  the  light, 
all  those  misgivings  which  had  so  naturally  accompanied  his 
musings  on  the  difficulties  of  a  partisan  irruption,  vanished  be- 
fore the  loveliness  of  the  time,  and  possibly  before  the  quietude 
of  the  action. 

"  There  are  moments  when  I  could  fancy  the  life  of  a  sailor/ 
he  said,  leaning  indolently  back,  and  playing  with  one  hand  in 


the  water.  This  pulling  about  in  boats  is  easy  work,  and  must 
be  capital  assistance  for  a  heavy  digestion,  inasmuch  as  it  fur- 
nishes air  with  as  little  violent  exercise  as  may  be.  Your  marine 
should  lead  a  merry  life  of  it!' 

"  They  are  said  to  murmur  at  the  clashing  of  their  duties  with 
those  of  the  sea-officers/  said  Lionel;  'and  I  have  often  heard 
them  complain  of  a  want  of  room  to  make  use  of  their  legs/ 

"  'Humph!'  ejaculated  Polwarth;  'the  leg  is  a  part  of  a  man 
for  which  I  see  less  actual  necessity  than  for  any  other  portion 
of  his  frame.  I  often  think  there  has  been  a  sad  mistake  in  the 
formation  of  the  animal;  as,  for  instance,  one  can  be  a  very  good 
waterman,  as  you  see,  without  legs— a  good  fiddler,  a  first-rate 
tailor,  a  lawyer,  a  doctor,  a  parson,  a  very  tolerable  cook,  and  in 
short,  anything  but  a  dancing-master.  I  see  no  use  in  a  leg  unless 
it  be  to  have  the  gout— at  any  rate,  a  leg  of  twelve  inches  is  as 
good  as  one  a  mile  long,  and  the  saving  might  be  appropriated 
to  the  nobler  parts  of  the  animal;  such  as  the  brain  and  the 

"  Tou  forget  the  officer  of  light-infantry/  said  Lionel,  laugh- 
ing- ^ 

"  Tou  might  give  him  a  couple  of  inches  more;  though  as 
everything  in  this  wicked  world  is  excellent  only  by  comparison, 
it  would  amount  to  the  same  thing,  and  on  my  system  a  man 
would  be  just  as  fit  for  the  light-infantry  without,  as  with  legs; 
and  he  would  get  rid  of  a  good  deal  of  troublesome  manoeuver- 
ing,  especially  of  this  new  exercise.  It  would  then  become  a  de- 
lightful service,  Leo;  for  it  may  be  said  to  monopolize  all  the 
poetry  of  military  life,  as  you  may  see.  Neither  the  imagination 
nor  the  body  can  require  more  than  we  enjoy  at  this  moment,  and 
of  what  use,  I  would  ask,  are  our  legs?  if  anything,  they  are  in- 
cumbrances  in  this  boat.  Here  we  have  a  soft  moon,  and  softer 
seats— smooth  water,  and  a  stimulating  air— on  one  side  fine  coun- 
try, which,  though  but  faintly  seen,  is  known  to  be  fertile  and 
rich  to  abundance;  and  on  the  other  a  picturesque  town,  stored 
with  condiments  of  every  climate— even  those  rascally  privates 
look  mellowed  by  the  moonbeams,  with  their  scarlet  coats  and 
glittering  arms!  .  .  .  Where  now  are  your  companies  of  the 


lines;  your  artillery  and  dragoons;  your  engineers  and  staff!  night- 
capped  and  snoring  to  a  man,  while  we  enjoy  here  the  very  des- 
sert of  existence—  I  wish  I  could  hear  a  nightingale!'  " 

This  is  obviously  less  excellent  than  Falstaff,  but  on  the  other 
hand  it  does  not  really  endeavor  to  compete  with  Falstaff,  and, 
having  a  minor  excellence  of  its  own,  should  survive  the  com- 
parison. I  should  like  to  insist  that  here,  as  in  other  scattered 
passages  of  Cooper,  there  is  a  prose  possessing  at  once  an  au- 
thentic poetic  perception  and  a  rhetorical  procedure  both  ingen- 
ious and  controlled;  that  these  scattered  passages  are  frequently 
of  sufficient  length  to  be  impressive;  that  among  them  there  is 
considerable  variety  as  regards  the  kind  of  prose  employed;  and 
that  they  display  a  stylist  superior  to  any  other  in  America— and 
I  do  not  except  Hawthorne—before  Melville,  one  who  in  some 
respects  foreshadows  Melville,  and  one  who  can  still  be  examined 
with  pleasure  and  with  profit. 

In  Wing-and-Wing,  Cooper  writes  a  story  of  his  favorite  type 
of  sailing  vessel,  a  light  and  elusive  fugitive  from  authority;  and 
he  places  the  vessel  in  the  marine  setting  which  of  all  he  regarded 
as  the  most  beautiful  and  the  most  ethereal,  the  Mediterranean. 
The  plot,  as  in  nearly  all  of  his  tales  of  adventure,  is  one  of  pur- 
suit and  flight,  but  in  these  conditions  the  pursuit  and  flight 
acquire  an  air  of  illusion  which  at  a  few  moments,  especially  in 
the  discussion  of  solipsistic  philosophy  which  takes  place  be- 
tween the  vice-governor  of  Elba  and  his  podesta  while  halfway 
down  the  ship's  ladder  of  a  British  cruiser,  all  but  evaporates  into 

Wing-and-Wing,  though  occasionally  amusing  or  even  beauti- 
ful, is  less  certain  of  its  intention  than  the  earlier  novel  of  a  some- 
what similar  kind,  The  Water-Witch.  The  action  of  The  Water- 
Witch  is  extremely  unreal,  and  the  unreality,  not  to  say  the  im- 
possibility of  much  of  it,  would  be  preposterous  did  Cooper  not 
utilize  this  very  quality.  It  has  the  plot,  entrances,  exits,  abduc- 
tions, and  mysteries  of  a  comic  opera;  and  the  style  is  adjusted 
to  the  plot  in  a  manner  at  once  brilliant  and  meticulous.  Plot 
and  character  alike  have  the  unreality,  but  the  consistency  within 
themselves,  of  the  plot  and  character,  let  us  say,  of  Volpone;  and 

Cooper  endeavors  to  achieve  a  style  not  dissimilar,  so  far  as  the 
limits  of  prose  permit,  to  the  style  of  Jonson's  dramatic  verse.  This 
novel,  though  imperfect  artistically,  is  imperfect  in  minor  ways; 
questions  of  scope  aside,  it  is  probably  Cooper's  ablest  piece  of 
work,  as  it  is  certainly  one  of  the  most  brilliant,  if  scarcely  one  of 
the  most  profound,  masterpieces  of  American  prose. 

The  numerous  quotations  from  Shakespeare  employed  in  this 
work  give  a  clue  to  the  Elizabethan  models  for  the  prose;  and  if 
they  did  not,  there  would  be  clues  sufficiently  obvious  scattered 
throughout  the  prose  itself.  The  following  commentary,  for  ex- 
ample is  spoken  by  the  incredible  Thomas  Tiller:  "  'Every  craft 
has  its  allotted  time,  like  a  mortal/  continued  the  inexplicable 
mariner  of  the  India-shawl.  If  she  is  to  die  a  sudden  death,  there 
is  your  beam-end  and  stern-way,  which  takes  her  into  the  grave 
without  funeral  service  or  parish  prayers;  your  dropsy  is  being 
water-logged;  gout  and  rheumatism  kill  like  a  broken  back  and 
loose  joints;  indigestion  is  a  shifting  cargo,  with  guns  adrift;  the 
gallows  is  a  bottomry-bond,  with  lawyers'  fees;  while  fire,  drown- 
ing, death  by  religious  melancholy,  and  suicide,  are  a  careless 
gunner,  sunken  rocks,  false  lights,  and  a  lubberly  captain/  " 

The  best  prose,  however,  is  to  be  found  where  the  imitation 
of  rhetorical  forms  is  not  so  close,  but  where  the  intention  of 
schematization  is  equally  marked.  The  two  most  successful  char- 
acters, from  the  point  of  view  of  one  who  seeks  this  particular 
quality,  are  the  loquacious  Dutch  Alderman,  Van  Beverout,  and 
his  taciturn  and  aristocratic  young  friend,  Oloff  Van  Staats,  the 
Patroon  of  Kinderhook,  the  former  as  a  commentator  on  the 
action  and  on  life  at  large,  and  the  latter  as  one  providing  much 
food  for  comment.  To  the  reader  who  does  not  find  a  certain 
pleasure  in  the  texture  of  the  prose  in  which  the  meditations  of 
the  Alderman  are  couched,  the  Alderman  must  needs  be  very 
tiresome;  but  his  reveries  and  his  commercial  imagery  possess  a 
hard  and  clear,  if  somewhat  baroque  and  elaborate,  beauty, 
which,  though  it  does  not  lend  itself  convincingly  to  brief  quota- 
tion, is  fairly  impressive  in  the  text. 

The  essential  difficulty  in  connection  with  these  rhetorical  ex- 
cursions resides  simply  in  the  fact  that  the  subject  is  never  ade- 


quate  to  permit  the  extraction  from  the  rhetoric  its  Full  possi- 
bilities, so  that  we  have  a  species  of  lyricism,  which,  though  real 
enough,  is  frequently  all  but  verbal  or  even  syntactical;  we  have 
something  approaching  pure  rhetoric.  Cooper  conceived  a  comic- 
opera  plot  to  provide  the  motive  for  his  poetry;  in  Moby  Dick, 
on  the  other  hand,  the  plot  is  the  plot  of  an  epic,  and  not  only 
are  the  possibilities  of  the  rhetoric  exhausted,  but  the  rhetoric 
has  greater  possibilities. 


If  we  except  The  Water-Witch,  a  minor  but  original  master- 
piece, not  flawless,  perhaps,  but  still  a  unit,  we  find  Cooper  to 
be  essentially  a  man  of  fragments;  it  is  likely  that  the  best  part 
of  him  is  in  the  fragments,  moreover,  and  not  in  The  Water- 
Witch.  He  embodies  a  social  ideal  that  in  his  own  lifetime  was 
so  far  gone  in  decay  that  his  defense  of  it  cost  him  his  reputation, 
and  that  it  may  scarcely  be  said  to  have  survived  him  to  the  extent 
of  two  decades.  He  displays  at  his  best  a  rhetorical  grandeur  of  a 
kind  cognate  with  his  social  ideals,  but  habitual  rather  than 
understood,  and  commonly  collapsing  for  lack  of  support  from  his 
action;  that  is,  he  displays  a  great  traditional  moral  sense  cor- 
roded by  the  formulary  romantic  sentiment  of  his  own  period, 
and  apparently  with  no  realization  that  the  two  are  incompatible. 
On  a  few  occasions  he  displays  great  vigor  of  conception,  as  in 
the  creation  of  such  plots  as  The  Sea  Lions  and  The  Wept  of 
Wish-ton-Wish,  as  in  the  creation  of  such  characters  as  Leather- 
stocking  and  Jason  Newcome,  as  in  the  residual  feeling  of  inti- 
macy with  which  he  leaves  one,  from  perhaps  a  half-dozen  of 
novels,  with  life  in  frontier  and  provincial  New  York.  This  is  a 
vigor  which  has  little  to  do  with  rhetoric,  or  at  least  has  to  do  with 
it  but  seldom,  and  which  frequently  survives  a  great  deal  of  bad 
rhetoric:  the  figure  of  Leatherstocking  emerges  from  the  debris 
of  the  five  novels  in  which  he  was  created,  independent,  au- 
thentic, and  unforgettable.  For  the  American  who  desires  a  polite 
education  in  his  own  literature,  the  five  novels  of  the  Leather- 
stocking  series  are  indispensable,  as  are  the  first  two  Littlepagc 

novels,  The  Bravo,  and  The  Water-Witch.  For  the  American 
who  desires  an  education  historical  as  well  as  literary,  and  richly 
literary  instead  of  superficially,  the  entire  work  should  be  ex- 
humed. It  is  a  mass  of  fragments,  no  doubt;  but  the  fragments  are 
those  of  a  civilization. 


and  The  Problems  of  Moral  Navigation 

"The  ribs  and  terrors  of  the  whale 

Arched  over  me  a  dismal  gloom.  .  .  ." 

Father  Maple's  hymn,  in  MOBY  DICK 

IN  Pierre,  Melville  remarks:  "Fortunately  for  the  felicity  of  the 
Dilettante  in  Literature,  the  horrible  allegorical  meanings  of  the 
Inferno  lie  not  on  the  surface."  We  naturally  desire  to  shelter 
the  dilettante  as  far  as  possible;  but  when  he  obscures  a  writer  of 
Melville's  dimensions  for  three  quarters  of  a  century,  we  begin  to 
find  him  an  obstacle  in  our  own  paths.  The  field  of  Melville 
criticism  is  fa*  more  heartening  than  it  was  thirty  years  ago,  for 
there  is  much  activity;  the  activity,  unfortunately,  is  for  the 
greater  part  desperately  confused.  If  one  is  bent  on  an  under- 
standing of  Melville,  his  greatest  work,  Moby  Dick,  is  the  most 
complete  statement  of  his  subject;1  two  unsuccessful  works, 
Pierre  and  The  Confidence  Man,  come  next  in  this  particular 
respect.  I  shall  therefore  begin  with  Moby  Dick. 

The  symbolism  of  Moby  Dick  is  based  on  the  antithesis  of  the 
sea  and  the  land:  the  land  represents  the  known,  the  mastered, 
in  human  experience;  the  sea,  the  half-known,  the  obscure  region 
of  instinct,  uncritical  feeling,  danger,  and  terror. 

"Yea,  foolish  mortals,  Noah's  flood  is  not  yet  subsided;  two 
thirds  of  the  fair  world  it  yet  covers. 

"Wherein  differ  the  sea  and  the  land,  that  a  miracle  upon  one 

1  In  my  remarks  on  the  symbolism  of  Moby  Dick,  I  am  indebted  for  a  good 
many  details  to  an  unpublished  thesis  by  Achilles  Holt,  done  at  Stanford  Uni- 
versity. Mr.  Holt  examines  the  subject  very  minutely,  and  I  have  used  only  a 
small  part  of  his  material;  his  thesis  ought  to  be  published.  On  the  other  hand, 
I  have  added  a  good  deal  of  my  own,  and  I  differ  radically  with  Mr.  Holt  as  to 
his  interpretation  of  the  central  theme,  that  is,  in  regard  to  the  significance  of 
Ahab's  character  and  actions. 


is  not  a  miracle  upon  the  other?  Preternatural  terrors  rested  upon 
the  Hebrews,  when  under  the  feet  of  Korah  and  his  company 
the  live  ground  opened  and  swallowed  them  up  for  ever;  yet  not 
a  modern  sun  ever  sets,  but  in  precisely  the  same  manner  the  live 
sea  swallows  up  ships  and  crews. 

"But  not  only  is  the  sea  such  a  foe  to  man  who  is  alien  to  it, 
but  it  is  also  a  fiend  to  its  own  offspring;  worse  than  the  Persian 
host  who  murdered  his  own  guests;  sparing  not  the  creatures 
which  itself  hath  spawned.  Like  a  savage  tigress  that  overlays  her 
own  cubs,  so  the  sea  dashes  even  the  mightiest  whales  against 
the  rocks,  and  leaves  them  there  side  by  side  with  the  split  wrecks 
of  ships.  No  mercy,  no  power  but  its  own  controls  it.  Panting 
and  snorting  like  a  mad  battle  steed  that  has  lost  its  rider,  the 
masterless  ocean  overruns  the  globe. 

"Consider  the  subtleness  of  the  sea;  how  its  most  dreaded  crea- 
tures glide  under  the  water,  unapparent  for  the  most  part,  and 
treacherously  hidden  beneath  the  loveliest  tints  of  azure.  Con- 
sider also  the  devilish  brilliance  and  beauty  of  many  of  its  most 
remorseless  tribes,  as  the  dainty  embellished  shape  of  many 
species  of  sharks.  Consider  once  more  the  universal  cannibalism 
of  the  sea,  all  whose  creatures  prey  upon  each  other,  carrying 
on  eternal  war  since  the  world  began. 

"Consider  all  this;  and  then  turn  to  this  green,  gentle,  and 
most  docile  earth.  Consider  them  both,  the  sea  and  the  land;  and 
do  you  not  find  a  strange  analogy  to  something  in  yourself?  For 
as  this  appalling  ocean  surrounds  the  verdant  land,  so  in  the  soul 
of  man  there  lies  one  insular  Tahiti,  full  of  peace  and  joy,  but 
encompassed  by  all  the  horrors  of  the  half  known  life.  God  help 
thee!  Push  not  off  from  that  isle,  thou  canst  never  return!" 

The  ocean  is  the  home  of  demons  and  symbols  of  evil  too  nu- 
merous to  mention.  It  is  the  home  especially  of  Moby  Dick,  the 
white  whale,  the  chief  symbol  and  spirit  of  evil;  it  is  also  the 
home  of  the  great  white  squid,  chaotic  and  formless,  the  symbol 
of  chance  in  life:  "A  vast  pulpy  mass,  furlongs  in  length  and 
breadth,  of  a  glancing  cream-color,  lay  floating  on  the  water;  in- 
numerable long  arms  radiating  from  its  center,  and  curling  and 
twisting  like  a  nest  of  anacondas,  as  if  blindly  to  catch  at  any  hap- 


less  object  within  reach.  No  perceptible  face  or  front  did  it  have; 
no  conceivable  token  of  either  sensation  or  instinct;  but  un- 
dulated there  on  the  billows,  an  unearthly,  formless,  chance-like 
apparition  of  life/* 

Pip,  the  little  negro  boy,  falls  overboard  from  a  whale  boat; 
that  is,  he  is  immersed  in  the  sea.  As  a  result,  and  after  his  rescue, 
he  is  mad.  In  the  chapter  entitled  The  Mast-head,  Ishmael  speaks 
of  his  own  contemplation  of  the  sea  from  aloft,  where  he  had 
been  sent  as  a  look-out:  ".  .  .  lulled  into  such  an  opium-like  list- 
lessness  of  vacant  unconscious  revery  is  this  absent-minded  youth 
by  the  blending  cadence  of  waves  with  thoughts,  that  at  last  he 
loses  his  identity;  takes  the  mystic  ocean  at  his  feet  for  the  visible 
image  of  that  deep,  blue,  bottomless  soul,  pervading  mankind 
and  nature;  and  every  strange,  half-seen,  gliding  beautiful  thing 
that  eludes  him;  every  dimly  discovered,  uprising  fin  of  some 
undiscernible  form,  seems  to  him  the  embodiment  of  those  elu- 
sive thoughts  that  only  people  the  soul  by  continuously  flitting 
through  it.  In  this  enchanted  mood  thy  spirit  ebbs  away  to 
whence  it  came;  becomes  diffused  through  time  and  space;  like 
Cranmer's  sprinkled  Pantheistic  ashes,  forming  at  last  a  part  of 
every  shore  the  round  globe  over. 

'There  is  no  life  in  thee  now,  except  that  rocking  life  im- 
parted by  a  gentle  rolling  ship;  by  her,  borrowed  from  the  sea; 
by  the  sea  from  the  inscrutable  tides  of  God.  But  while  this  sleep, 
this  dream,  is  on  ye,  move  your  foot  or  hand  an  inch;  slip  your 
hold  at  all;  and  your  identity  comes  back  in  horror.  Over  Des- 
cartian  vortices  you  hover.  And  perhaps,  at  midday,  in  the  fairest 
weather,  with  one  half-throttled  shriek  you  drop  through  that 
transparent  air  into  the  summer  sea,  no  more  to  rise  for  ever. 
Heed  it  well,  ye  Pantheists!" 

The  relationship  of  man  to  the  known  and  to  the  half  known, 
however,  is  not  a  simple  and  static  one;  he  cannot  merely  stay 
on  land,  or  he  will  perish  of  imperception,  but  must  venture  on 
the  sea,  without  losing  his  relationship  to  the  land;  we  have,  in 
brief,  the  relationship  of  principle  to  perception,  or,  in  other 
words,  the  problem  of  judgment.  This  is  made  clear  in  the  invo- 
cation to  Bulkington,  a  helmsman  even  more  memorable  than 


Palinurus,  in  the  chapter  entitled  The  Lee  Shore:  'When  on 
that  shivering  winter's  night,  the  Pequod  thrust  her  vindictive 
bows  into  the  cold  malicious  waves,  whom  should  I  see  standing 
at  her  helm  but  Bulkington!  I  looked  with  sympathetic  awe  and 
fearfulness  upon  the  man,  who  in  mid-winter  just  landed  from 
a  four  years'  dangerous  voyage,  could  so  unrestingly  push  off 
again  for  still  another  tempestuous  term.  The  land  seemed  scorch- 
ing to  his  feet.  Wonderfullest  things  are  ever  the  unmentionable; 
deep  memories  yield  no  epitaphs;  this  six-inch  chapter  is  the 
stoneless  grave  of  Bulkington.  Let  me  only  say  that  it  fared  vvith 
him  as  with  the  storm-tossed  ship  that  miserably  drives  along  the 
leeward  land.  The  port  would  fain  give  succor;  the  port  is  pitiful; 
in  the  port  is  safety,  comfort,  hearthstone,  supper,  warm  blankets, 
friends,  all  that's  kind  to  our  mortalities.  But  in  that  gale,  the 
port,  the  land,  is  that  ship's  direst  jeopardy;  she  must  fly  all  hos- 
pitality; one  touch  of  land,  though  it  but  graze  the  keel,  would 
make  her  shudder  through  and  through.  With  all  her  might  she 
crowds  all  sail  off  shore;  in  so  doing  fights  'gainst  the  very  winds 
that  fain  would  blow  her  homeward;  seeks  all  the  lashed  seas' 
landlessness  again;  for  refuge's  sake  forlornly  rushing  into  peril; 
her  only  friend  her  bitterest  foe! 

"Know  ye,  now,  Bulkington?  Glimpses  do  ye  seem  to  see  of 
that  mortally  intolerable  truth;  that  all  deep,  earnest  thinking  is 
but  the  intrepid  effort  of  the  soul  to  keep  the  open  independence 
of  her  sea;  while  the  wildest  winds  of  heaven  and  earth  conspire 
to  cast  her  on  the  treacherous,  slavish  shore? 

"But  as  in  landlessness  alone  resides  the  highest  truth,  shore- 
less, indefinite  as  God— so,  better  is  it  to  perish  in  that  howling 
infinite,  than  be  ingloriously  dashed  upon  the  lee,  even  if  that 
were  safety!  For  worm-like,  then,  oh!  who  would  craven  crawl 
to  land!  Terrors  of  the  terrible!  is  all  this  agony  so  vain?  Take 
heart,  take  heart,  O  Bulkington!  Bear  thee  grimly,  demigod!  Up 
from  the  spray  of  thy  ocean-perishing—straight  up  leaps  thy 

It  should  be  observed  that  this  passage  is  addressed  to  a  helms- 
man, governed  by  the  laws  of  his  calling,  and  obeying  the  com- 
mands of  a  navigator,  one  who  guides  the  ship  with  reference 


to  the  position  of  the  land.  Symbolically,  the  passage  represents 
the  process  of  living  by  judgment;  that  is  by  perception  of  in- 
dividual, shifting,  and  chaotic  phenomena,  but  by  perception 
trained  in  principle,  in  abstraction,  to  the  point  where  it  is  able 
to  find  its  way  amid  the  chaos  of  the  particular.  Ahab  is  ulti- 
mately betrayed  to  his  end  by  the  white  whale,  who  is  the  spirit 
of  evil,  in  the  farthest  Pacific,  after  destroying  his  quadrant  (the 
instrument  which  gives  him  his  mathematical  position  upon  the 
ocean),  after  having  his  compass  needle  reversed  by  a  storm  (a 
warning  that  he  should  turn  about  and  retrace  his  way),  after  the 
snapping  of  his  log-line  (which  enabled  him  to  gauge  his  posi- 
tion roughly),  and  after  the  sinking  of  the  life-buoy  and  the 
caulking  of  Queequeg's  coffin  to  take  its  place. 

With  these  basic  ideas,  and  these  few  illustrative  passages 
clearly  in  mind,  we  may  follow  the  details  of  the  book  with  great 

Ishmael,  having  decided  to  go  to  sea,  notes  the  attraction 
which  the  sea  possesses  for  landsmen :  "Circumambulate  the  city 
of  a  dreamy  Sabbath  afternoon.  Go  from  Corlears  Hook  to  Coen- 
ties  Slip,  and  from  there  by  Whitehall,  northward.  What  do  you 
see?— Posted  like  silent  sentinels  all  around  the  town,  stand  thou- 
sands upon  thousands  of  mortal  men  fixed  in  ocean  reveries. 
Some  leaning  against  the  spiles;  some  seated  upon  the  pier-heads; 
some  looking  over  the  bulwarks  of  ships  from  China;  some  high 
aloft  in  the  rigging,  as  if  striving  to  get  a  still  better  seaward 
peep.  But  these  are  all  landsmen;  of  week-days  pent  up  in  lath 
and  plaster— tied  to  counters,  nailed  to  benches,  clinched  to  desks. 
How  then  is  this?  Are  the  green  fields  gone?  What  do  they  here? 

"But  look!  here  come  more  crowds,  pacing  straight  for  the 
water,  and  seemingly  bound  for  a  dive.  Strange!  Nothing  will 
content  them  but  the  extremest  limit  of  the  land;  loitering  under 
the  shady  lee  of  yonder  warehouses  will  not  suffice.  No.  They 
must  get  just  as  nigh  the  water  as  they  possibly  can  without  fall- 
ing in.  .  .  ." 

Ishmael  leaves  New  York  for  New  Bedford,  arrives  at  night, 
and  seeks  an  inn.  Since  he  is  low  in  funds,  he  seeks  the  cheapest 
inns,  which  are  nearest  the  water-front,  and  his  approach  to  water 

is  represented  as  an  approach  to  chaos,  death,  and  hell.  Ishmael 
proceeds  through  dismal  streets,  stumbles  into  a  negro  church, 
and  then  comes  to  The  Spouter  Inn,  kept  by  Peter  Coffin,  a  jux- 
taposition of  names  which  gives  us  our  first  explicit  hint  of  one 
of  the  two  major  symbolisms  of  the  whale:  death  and  evil.  And 
in  the  third  chapter,  we  are  given  a  clue  to  both  meanings,  for 
the  sailors'  bar  is  over-arched  by  the  jawbone  of  a  whale;  the 
symbolism  of  this  passage  is  clear,  and  the  description  is  horribly 

"Entering  that  gable-ended  Spouter  Inn,  you  found  yourself 
in  a  wide,  low,  straggling  entry  with  old-fashioned  wainscots,  re- 
minding one  of  the  bulwarks  of  some  condemned  old  craft.  .  .  . 

"The  opposite  wall  of  this  entry  was  hung  all  over  with  a 
heathenish  array  of  monstrous  clubs  and  spears.  Some  were 
thickly  set  with  glittering  teeth  resembling  ivory  saws;  others 
were  tufted  with  knots  of  human  hair;  and  one  was  sickle-shaped, 
with  a  vast  handle  sweeping  round  like  the  segment  made  in  the 
new-mown  grass  by  a  long-armed  mower.  You  shuddered  as  you 
gazed,  and  wondered  what  monstrous  cannibal  and  savage  could 
ever  have  gone  a  death-harvesting  with  such  a  hacking,  horrify- 
ing implement.  Mixed  with  these  were  rusty  old  whaling  lances 
and  harpoons  all  broken  and  deformed.  .  .  . 

"Crossing  this  dusty  entry,  and  on  through  yon  low-arched 
way— cut  through  what  in  old  times  must  have  been  a  great  cen- 
tral chimney  with  fire-places  all  round— you  enter  the  public 
room.  A  still  duskier  place  is  this,  with  such  low  ponderous  beams 
above,  and  such  old  wrinkled  planks  beneath,  that  you  would 
almost  fancy  you  trod  some  old  craft's  cockpits,  especially  of  such 
a  howling  night,  when  this  corner-anchored  old  ark  rocked  so 
furiously.  On  one  side  stood  a  long,  low,  shelf-like  table  covered 
with  cracked  glass  cases,  filled  with  dusty  rarities  gathered  from 
this  wide  world's  remotest  nooks.  Projecting  from  the  farther 
angle  of  the  room  stands  a  dark-looking  den— the  bar— a  rude 
attempt  at  a  right  whale's  head.  Be  that  how  it  may,  there  stands 
the  vast  arched  bone  of  the  whale's  jaw,  so  wide  a  coach  might 
almost  drive  beneath  it.  Within  are  shabby  shelves,  ranged  round 
with  old  decanters,  bottles,  flasks;  and  in  those  jaws  of  swift  de- 


struction,  like  another  cursed  Jonah  (by  which  name  indeed  they 
call  him)  bustles  a  little  withered  old  man,  who,  for  their  money, 
dearly  sells  the  sailors  deliriums  and  death." 

It  is  at  this  inn  that  Ishmael  meets  his  future  boon-companion, 
Queequeg,  a  tattooed  cannibal,  whose  head,  in  the  half-light,  re- 
sembles a  mildewed  skull.  The  harpooneers  on  the  voyage  all 
turn  out  to  be  savages:  the  first  three,  Queequeg,  the  Pacific 
islander,  Daggoo,  the  African  negro,  and  Tashtego  the  Gay  Head 
Indian,  represent  the  basic  pagan  virtues  of  strength  and  accu- 
racy, both  muscular  and  instinctive,  and  of  absolute  fidelity,  but 
below  the  level  of  reason,  so  that  they  are  governed  unquestion- 
ingly  by  the  damned  Ahab  and  do  his  bidding  to  the  end:  when 
the  ship  finally  sinks  to  perdition,  Tashtego  is  nailing  a  sky-hawk, 
a  piece  of  heaven,  to  the  mast,  to  carry  it  down  with  him. 

After  a  few  minor  adventures,  Ishmael  finds  his  way  to  Father 
Mapple's  church,  inspects  the  memorial  tablets  for  whalemen 
lost  at  sea,  and  speculates  on  the  horrible  implications  of  death, 
especially  upon  the  universal  and  ineradicable  feeling  among 
men  that  death  is  essentially  and  profoundly  evil.  The  reasoning 
implied  here  is  the  same  as  that  developed  fully  in  the  great  chap- 
ter on  the  whiteness  of  the  whale;  namely,  that  this  instinctive 
knowledge  of  evil  and  demonism  is  trustworthy  and  is  embedded 
in  the  race  as  a  remnant  of  an  earlier  and  fuller  knowledge:  "In 
what  eternal,  unstirring  paralysis,  and  deadly,  hopeless  trance, 
yet  lies  antique  Adam  who  died  sixty  round  centuries  ago;  how 
is  it  that  we  still  refuse  to  be  comforted  for  those  who  we  never- 
theless maintain  are  dwelling  in  unspeakable  bliss;  why  all  the 
living  so  strive  to  hush  all  the  dead;  wherefore  but  the  rumor  of 
the  knocking  of  a  tomb  will  terrify  a  whole  city.  All  these  things 
are  not  without  their  meanings/' 

Father  Mapple  preaches  on  Jonah,  and  the  whale  is  the  symbol 
of  hell  and  death.  The  hymn  contains  the  essence  of  the  sermon: 

The  ribs  and  terrors  of  the  whale, 

Arched  over  me  a  dismal  gloom, 
While  all  Gods  sunlit  waves  rolled  \>yy 

And  left  me  deepening  down  to  doom. 


1  saw  the  opening  maw  of  hell, 

With  endless  pains  and  sorrows  there; 

Which  none  hut  they  that  feel  can  tell— 
Oh,  I  was  plunging  to  despair. 

In  hlack  distress,  1  called  my  God, 

When  I  could  scarce  believe  him  mine, 

He  howed  his  ear  to  my  complaints- 
No  more  the  whale  did  me  confine. 

With  speed  he  flew  to  my  relief, 

As  on  a  radiant  dolphin  borne; 
Awful,  yet  bright  as  lightning,  shone 

The  face  of  my  Deliverer  God. 

My  song  forever  shall  record 

That  terrible  that  joyful  hour; 
I  give  the  glory  to  my  God, 

His  all  the  mercy  and  the  power. 

Jonah,  having  sinned,  is  given  a  foretaste  of  hell,  and  then  he 
repents,  and  God  delivers  him;  "and  Jonah,  bruised  and  beaten 
—his  ears,  like  two  seashells,  still  multitudinously  murmuring 
of  the  ocean— Jonah  did  the  Almighty's  bidding."  But  so  Ahab 
did  not,  and  Ahab  was  damned. 

They  proceed  a  little  farther  to  sea;  that  is,  to  the  island  of 
Nantucket,  from  which  they  plan  to  ship.  Nantucket  is  repre- 
sented as  the  very  essence  of  the  New  England  sea-coast,  the 
fishiest  of  fishing  towns.  Ishmael  is  excited  with  his  coming  ad- 
venture, and  the  cod  and  clam  chowders  of  Mistress  Hussey 
render  him  momentarily  delirious:  "But  look,  Queequeg,  ain't 
that  a  live  eel  in  your  bowl?  Where's  your  harpoon?"  Even  the 
landlord's  cow  appears  a  trifle  tipsy:  "I  saw  Hosea's  brindled 
cow  feeding  on  fish  remnants,  and  marching  along  the  sand  with 
each  foot  in  a  cod's  decapitated  head,  looking  very  slipshod,  I 
assure  ye." 

Ishmael  and  Queequeg  sign  to  ship  on  the  Pequod,  a  Nan- 


tucket  whaler  commanded  by  Captain  Ahab,  and  of  which  the 
retired  captains  Peleg  and  Bildad  are  part  owners.  Queequeg's 
island  divinity,  whom  he  carries  about  with  him,  had  communi- 
cated to  Queequeg  that  Ishmael  was  fated  to  choose  the  boat  on 
which  they  were  fated  to  sail,  and  thus  was  the  matter  done.  Im- 
mediately after  signing,  they  receive  a  warning  from  Bildad: 
"Meanwhile  Captain  Bildad  sat  earnestly  and  steadfastly  eyeing 
Queequeg,  and  at  last  rising  solemnly  and  fumbling  in  the  huge 
pockets  of  his  broad-skirted  drab  coat,  took  out  a  bundle  of  tracts, 
and  selecting  one  entitled,  The  Latter  Day  Coming;  or  No  Time 
to  Lose/  placed  it  in  Queequeg's  hands,  and  then  grasping  them 
and  the  book  in  both  his,  looked  earnestly  into  his  eyes,  and  said, 
'Son  of  darkness,  I  must  do  my  duty  by  thee;  I  am  part  owner  of 
this  ship  and  feel  concerned  for  the  souls  of  all  its  crew;  if  thou 
still  clingest  to  thy  pagan  ways,  which  I  sadly  fear,  I  beseech  thee, 
remain  not  for  aye  a  Belial  bondsman.  Spurn  the  idol  Bell,  and 
the  hideous  dragon;  turn  from  the  wrath  to  come;  mind  thine  eye, 
I  say;  oh!  goodness  gracious!  steer  clear  of  the  fiery  pit!'  "  The 
grotesque  combination  of  the  familiar  and  the  terrible  in  this 
passage  is  due  to  the  fact  that  a  common  and  somewhat  ludicrous 
man  and  action  are  utilized  to  recall  symbolic  meanings  of  which 
the  actors  are  unaware  but  which  the  reader  supposedly  has 
fathomed.  The  ominous  humor  of  other  scenes  in  the  early  parts 
of  the  book,  especially  that  relating  to  the  two  inns  and  the  first 
meeting  with  Queequeg,  is  of  the  same  kind.  Bildad's  outburst, 
like  Father  Mapple's  sermon,  is  one  of  the  many  unheeded  warn- 
ings with  which  the  progress  of  the  book  is  marked. 

After  they  set  sail,  the  mates  are  introduced  and  described. 
They  represent  various  levels  of  normal  human  attitudes  toward 
physical  and  spiritual  danger,  the  highest  being  that  of  Starbuck, 
the  first  mate,  who  represents  the  critical  intelligence:  "Starbuck 
was  no  crusader  after  perils;  in  him  courage  was  not  a  sentiment; 
but  a  thing  simply  useful  to  him,  and  always  at  hand  upon  all 
mortally  practical  occasions.  .  .  .  For,  thought  Starbuck,  I  am 
here  in  this  critical  ocean  to  kill  whales  for  my  living,  and  not  to 
be  killed  by  them  for  theirs;  and  that  hundreds  of  men  had  been 
so  killed  Starbuck  well  knew.  What  doom  was  his  own  father's? 

Where  in  the  bottomless  deeps  could  he  find  the  torn  limbs  of  his 
brother?"  Starbuck's  desperate  effort  to  turn  Ahab  from  his  pur- 
pose, and,  after  his  failure,  his  submission  to  Ahab,  is  thus  a 
major  crisis  in  the  book;  it  represents  the  unsuccessful  rebellion 
of  sanity  and  morality  against  a  dominant  madness. 

Ahab  himself  has  lost  a  leg  to  Moby  Dick,  the  white  whale,  on 
a  previous  voyage,  and  has  set  out  on  this  voyage  with  the  secret 
intention  of  vengeance,  in  spite  of  the  fact  that  he  owes  a  pri- 
mary allegiance  to  the  interests  of  his  owners.  As  the  whale  repre- 
sents death  and  evil,  Ahab's  ivory  leg  represents  the  death  that 
has  become  a  part  of  the  living  man  as  a  result  of  his  struggle 
with  evil;  it  is  the  numb  wisdom  which  is  the  fruit  of  experience. 
Stubb  displeases  Ahab  and  dreams  that  Ahab  kicks  him  with  the 
ivory  leg;  Stubb  meditates  vengeance,  but  he  eventually  con- 
cludes that  it  is  an  honor  to  be  kicked  by  the  ivory  leg  of  a  great 
man,  When  Ahab  meets  another  captain  at  sea  who  has  an  ivory 
right  arm  as  a  result  of  a  similar  accident,  and  when  the  captain 
in  question  extends  his  dead  arm  in  greeting,  Ahab  hoists  his 
ivory  leg  and  crosses  the  arm  with  it. 

Although  these  Nantucket  sea-otticers  are  nominally  Quakers, 
they  have  more  of  the  Calvinist  in  their  make-up  than  of  the 
Friend,  and  Melville  treats  them  in  more  or  less  Calvinistic 
terms;  they  are,  says  Melville,  "Quakers  with  a  vengeance."  The 
Calvinist,  though  he  believes  that  every  phenomenon  in  the  uni- 
verse is  decreed  by  God,  though  he  believes  that  good  works  are 
of  no  value  toward  salvation,  yet  believes,  sometimes  as  a  theolo- 
gian, sometimes  merely  as  a  practitioner  of  traditional  modes  of 
speech  who  is  too  uncritical  to  be  aware  of  discrepancies,  that 
man  is  morally  responsible  to  God;  and,  if  he  is  wise  enough 
not  to  attempt  to  resolve  this  contradiction,  having  once  discov- 
ered it,  consigns  it  to  the  plane  of  Absolute  Understanding,  eter- 
nally unattainable  by  man.  Jonathan  Edwards  elaborates  this 
somewhat  by  separating,  in  effect,  the  predestined  and  sinning 
will  from  the  understanding  soul;  so  that  the  soul,  conceived 
for  the  moment  as  pure  understanding,  may  observe  its  own 
actions,  which  it  cannot  avoid  committing,  and  approve  its  own 
damnation.  It  is  in  some  such  terms  as  these  that  Ahab  is  con- 


ceived.  There  are  many  passages  in  the  book  indicating  the 
theme  of  predestination;  the  most  striking  occur  in  the  forty- 
ninth  chapter: 

".  .  .  it  almost  seemed  that  while  he  himself  was  marking 
out  lines  and  courses  on  the  wrinkled  charts,  some  invisible  pen- 
cil was  also  tracing  lines  and  courses  upon  the  deeply  marked 
chart  of  his  forehead.  .  .  . 

"Often,  when  forced  from  his  hammock  by  exhausting  and 
intolerably  vivid  dreams  of  the  night,  which,  resuming  his  own 
intense  thoughts  through  the  day,  carried  them  on  amid  a  clash- 
ing of  phrensies,  and  whirled  them  round  and  round  in  his 
blazing  brain,  till  the  very  throbbing  of  his  life-spot  became  in- 
sufferable anguish;  and  when,  as  was  sometimes  the  case,  these 
spiritual  throes  in  him  heaved  its  being  up  from  its  base,  and  a 
chasm  seemed  opening  in  him,  from  which  forked  flames  and 
lightnings  shot  up,  and  accursed  fiends  beckoned  him  to  leap 
down  among  them;  when  this  hell  in  himself  yawned  beneath 
him,  a  wild  cry  would  be  heard  through  the  ship;  and  with  glar- 
ing eyes  Ahalb  would  burst  from  his  stateroom,  as  though  escap- 
ing from  a  bed  that  was  on  fire.  Yet  these,  perhaps,  instead  of 
being  the  insuppressible  symptoms  of  some  latent  weakness,  or 
fright  at  his  own  resolve,  were  but  the  plainest  tokens  of  its  in- 
tensity. For  at  such  times,  crazy  Ahab,  the  scheming,  unappcas- 
edly  steadfast  hunter  of  the  White  Whale;  this  Ahab  that  had 
gone  to  his  hammock,  was  not  the  agent  that  so  caused  him  to 
burst  from  it  in  horror  again.  The  latter  was  the  eternal,  living 
principle  or  soul  in  him;  and  in  sleep,  being  for  the  time  dissoci- 
ated from  the  characterizing  mind,  which  at  other  times  em- 
ployed it  for  its  outer  vehicle  or  agent,  it  spontaneously  sought 
escape  from  the  scorching  contiguity  of  the  frantic  thing,  of 
which,  for  the  time,  it  was  no  longer  an  integral.  But  as  the  mind 
does  not  exist,  unless  leagued  with  the  soul,  therefore  it  must 
have  been  that,  in  Ahab's  case,  yielding  up  all  his  thoughts  and 
fancies  to  his  one  supreme  purpose;  that  purpose  by  its  own  sheer 
inveteracy  of  will  forced  itself  against  gods  and  devils  into  a 
kind  of  self-assumed,  independent  being  of  its  own.  Nay,  could 
grimly  live  and  burn,  while  the  common  vitality  to  which  it  was 

conjoined,  fled  horror-stricken  from  the  unbidden  and  unfa- 
thered birth.  Therefore,  the  tormented  spirit  that  glared  out  of 
bodily  eyes,  when  what  seemed  Ahab  rushed  from  his  room,  was 
for  the  time  but  a  vacated  thing,  a  formless  somnambulistic 
being,  a  ray  of  living  light,  to  be  sure,  but  without  an  object  to 
color,  and  therefore  a  blankness  in  itself.  God  help  thee,  old  man, 
thy  thoughts  have  created  a  creature  in  thee;  and  he  whose  in- 
tense thinking  thus  makes  him  a  Prometheus;  a  vulture  feeds 
upon  his  heart  forever;  that  vulture  the  very  creature  he  creates/' 

Considered  in  this  light,  Fedallah,  Ahab's  harpooneer,  who 
guides  and  advises  him  in  the  direction  of  his  undoing,  and  who, 
according  to  Melville's  own  suggestion,  may  be  some  kind  of 
emanation  from  Ahab  himself,  is  perhaps  the  sinning  mind  as 
it  shows  itself  distinct  from  the  whole  man.  Fedallah  and  his 
boat-crew  are  smuggled  on  board  and  concealed  until  the  ship 
is  in  mid-ocean  and  Ahab's  intention  is  disclosed;  they  are  seen 
in  Nantuckct  only  as  ghostly  figures  hurrying  toward  the  ship 
in  the  dawn,  at  a  time  when  there  arc  the  vaguest  of  rumors 
afloat  about  Ahab;  Fedallah  is  destined  to  die  before  Ahab;  it  is 
Fedallah,  moreover,  who  sights  the  spirit-spout,  which  guides  the 
ship  into  the  Pacific.  The  crew  regard  Fedallah  as  the  devil  in 
disguise,  and  he  appears  in  general  to  be  offered  as  a  manifesta- 
tion of  pure  evil.  His  relationship  to  Ahab  is  underlined  at 
the  end  of  the  seventy-third  chapter:  "Meantime  Fedallah  was 
calmly  eyeing  the  right  whale's  head,  and  ever  and  anon  glanc- 
ing from  the  deep  wrinkles  there  to  the  lines  in  his  own  hand. 
And  Ahab  chanced  so  to  stand,  that  the  Parsee  occupied  his 
shadow;  while  if  the  Parsee's  shadow  was  there  at  all,  it  seemed 
only  to  blend  with  and  lengthen  Ahab's.  As  the  crew  toiled  on, 
Laplandish  speculations  were  bandied  among  them,  concerning 
all  these  passing  things." 

But  predestined  or  otherwise,  it  is  with  Ahab  the  sinner  that 
the  book  is  concerned;  his  sin,  in  the  minor  sense,  is  monomaniac 
vengeance;  in  the  major,  the  will  to  destroy  the  spirit  of  evil  it- 
self, an  intention  blasphemous  because  beyond  human  powers 
and  infringing  upon  the  purposes  of  God.  After  Starbuck  tries 
and  fails  to  turn  Ahab  aside,  we  have  a  series  of  chapters  illus- 


trating  the  effect  of  this  action  on  the  voyage.  The  first  is  a  mono- 
logue spoken  by  Ahab: 

"Dry  heat  upon  my  brow?  Oh!  time  was,  when  as  the  sunrise 
nobly  spurred  me,  so  the  sunset  soothed.  No  more.  This  lovely 
light,  it  lights  not  me;  all  loveliness  is  anguish  to  me,  since  I 
can  ne'er  enjoy.  Gifted  with  the  high  perception,  I  lack  the  low, 
enjoying  power;  damned,  most  subtly  and  most  malignantly! 
damned  in  the  midst  of  Paradise!  Good  night— good  night! 

"  'Twas  not  so  hard  a  task.  I  thought  to  find  one  stubborn  at 
the  least;  but  my  one  cogged  circle  fits  into  all  their  various 
wheels,  and  they  revolve.  .  .  .  They  think  me  mad— Starbuck 
does;  but  I'm  demoniac,  I  am  madness  maddened!  The  wild 
madness  that's  only  calm  to  comprehend  itself!" 

The  next  monologue  is  spoken  by  Starbuck:  "My  soul  is  more 
than  matched;  she's  overmanned;  and  by  a  madman!  Insuffer- 
able sting  that  sanity  should  ground  arms  on  such  a  field!  But 
he  drilled  deep  down  and  blasted  all  my  reason  out  of  me!  .  .  . 
Oh  God!  to  sail  with  such  a  heathen  crew  that  have  small  touch 
of  human  mothers  in  them!  Whelped  somewhere  by  the  sharkish 
sea.  The  White  Whale  is  their  demigorgon.  Hark!  the  infernal 

There  follows  a  brief  monologue  by  Stubb,  the  imperceptive, 
the  porter  at  the  gate,  and  then  comes  the  scene  of  the  "infernal 
orgies"  in  the  forecastle,  in  which,  as  a  result  of  the  defeat  of 
Starbuck,  who  represents  reason,  the  brutal  instincts  of  the  crew 
are  progressively  loosened,  until,  on  the  brink  of  catastrophe, 
they  are  brought  to  order  by  the  need  of  coping  with  a  physical 
adversary,  a  rising  storm.  From  this  time  forward,  however,  the 
ship  is  in  Ahab's  hands;  he  ultimately  destroys  his  nautical  in- 
struments and  sails  by  instinct  until  he  finds  the  whale  in  the 
remote  Pacific  and  is  destroyed. 

The  symbolism  of  the  whale  is  part  of  the  symbolism  of  the 
sea.  The  sea  is  the  realm  of  the  half-known,  at  once  of  percep- 
tion and  of  peril;  it  is  infested  by  subtle  and  malignant  creatures, 
bent  on  destruction;  it  is  governed  by  tremendous,  destructive, 
and  unpredictable  forces,  the  storms,  calms,  currents,  tides, 
depths,  and  distances,  amid  which  one  can  preserve  oneself  by 

virtue  only  of  the  greatest  skill,  and  then  but  precariously  and 
from  moment  to  moment.  Of  all  the  creatures  in  the  sea,  the 
whale  is  the  greatest,  the  most  intelligent,  and  the  most  danger- 
ous. It  is  for  whalemen  the  chief  object  in  life  upon  the  sea;  it 
lures  them  to  sea;  it  brings  them  frequently  to  death;  they  are  of 
necessity  much  impressed  with  its  dangers  and  its  power.  It  is 
thus  naturally,  in  a  general  way,  the  symbol  of  evil  and  of  death, 
and  this  symbolism  is  developed  from  beginning  to  end  of  the 
book  carefully  and  elaborately;  it  is  especially  explicit  in  the  de- 
scription of  the  skeleton  whale  which  Ishmael  once  saw  in  a 
bower  in  the  ArsacideS.  The  description  of  the  skeleton  follows 
a  great  many  other  chapters  in  which  the  anatomy  of  the  whale 
is  treated  part  by  part:  one  is  familiarized  in  great  detail  with  the 
structure,  size,  and  functions  of  the  animal,  as  well  as  with  his 
habits,  and  with  the  stupendous  medium  in  which  he  moves. 
Probably  no  other  book  exists  which  so  impresses  us  at  once  with 
the  vastness  of  the  physical  universe  and  with  the  vastness  of  the 
idea  of  the  universe.  The  allegory  is  incalculably  strengthened  by 
this  sense  of  vastness  and  power,  and  by  the  detailed  reality 
through  which  it  is  established.  Ultimately  we  are  shown  the 
extent  of  time  which  the  whale  inhabits,  as  well  as  of  space;  we 
meet  the  fossil  whale;  and  we  see  how  the  idea  of  the  whale  is 
imbedded  in  all  nature,  for  his  physical  form  is  repeatedly  sug- 
gested in  rocks,  in  mountains,  and  in  stars. 

This  general  symbolism  is  concentrated  in  Moby  Dick,  the 
White  Whale,  who  is  especially  intelligent,  malignant,  and  pow- 
erful; who  has  destroyed  or  seriously  injured  every  whaler  who 
has  sought  to  kill  him,  and  who  has  become  among  whalemen 
a  more  or  less  legendary  figure.  In  an  earlier  encounter,  he  had 
bitten  off  Ahab's  leg;  Ahab  is  bent  on  vengeance.  This  intense 
desire  for  revenge  is  a  sin;  and  in  Ahab's  case  the  sin  is  height- 
ened by  the  conviction  that  a  power  greater  and  more  malignant 
than  any  proper  to  mere  animal  nature  is  acting  in  or  through 
the  whale:  he  is  convinced  of  the  true  existence  of  the  "demon- 
ism  of  the  world."  He  thus  endeavors  to  step  outside  of  the  limita- 
tions of  man  and  revenge  himself  upon  the  permanent  order 
of  the  universe;  as  Melville  says,  in  a  passage  already  quoted,  he 


is  Promethean,  in  that  he  defies  the  gods;  but  he  goes  beyond 
Prometheus  in  his  fury,  for  he  seeks  to  destroy  a  god.  He  repre- 
sents, essentially,  the  ultimate  distillation  of  the  Calvinistic  tem- 

"  'Vengeance  on  a  dumb  brute!'  cried  Starbuck,  'that  simply 
smote  thee  from  blindest  instinct!  Madness!  To  be  enraged  with 
a  dumb  thing,  Captain  Ahab,  seems  blasphemous/ 

"  'Hark  ye  yet  again— the  little  lower  layer.  All  visible  objects, 
man,  are  but  as  pasteboard  masks.  But  in  each  event— in  the  liv- 
ing act,  the  undoubted  deed— there,  some  unknown  but  still 
reasoning  thing  puts  forth  the  mouldings  of  its  features  from  be- 
hind the  unreasoning  mask.  If  man  will  strike,  strike  through 
the  mask!  How  can  the  prisoner  reach  outside  except  by  thrust- 
ing through  the  wall?  To  me  the  white  whale  is  that  wall, 
shoved  near  to  me.  Sometimes  I  think  there's  naught  beyond. 
But  'tis  enough.  He  tasks  me;  he  heaps  me;  I  see  in  him  out- 
rageous strength,  with  an  inscrutable  malice  sinewing  it.  That 
inscrutable  thing  is  chiefly  what  I  hate;  and  be  the  white  whale 
agent,  or  be  the  white  whale  principal,  I  will  wreak  that  hate 
upon  him.  Talk  not  to  me  of  blasphemy,  man;  I'd  strike  the  sun 
if  it  insulted  me/  " 

The  most  extensive  elucidation  and  defense  of  the  notion  of 
the  demonism  of  Moby  Dick,  as  well  as  of  "the  demonism  of 
the  world,"  occurs  in  the  chapter  on  the  whiteness  of  the  whale, 
equally  one  of  the  most  astonishing  pieces  of  rhetoric  and  one 
of  the  most  appalling  specimens  of  metaphysical  argument  in  all 

"Tell  me  why  this  strong  young  colt,  foaled  in  some  peaceful 
valley  of  Vermont,  far  removed  from  all  beasts  of  prey— why  is 
it  that  upon  the  sunniest  day,  if  you  but  shake  a  fresh  buffalo 
robe  behind  him,  so  that  he  cannot  even  see  it,  but  only  smells 
its  wild  animal  muskiness— why  will  he  start,  snort,  and  with 
bursting  eyes  paw  the  ground  in  phrensies  of  affright?  There  is 
no  remembrance  in  him  of  any  gorings  of  wild  creatures  in  his 
green  northern  home,  so  that  the  strange  muskiness  he  smells 
cannot  recall  to  him  anything  associated  with  the  experience  of 

former  perils;  for  what  knows  he,  this  New  England  colt,  of 
the  black  bisons  of  distant  Oregon? 

"No:  but  here  thou  beholdest  even  in  a  dumb  brute,  the  in- 
stinct of  the  knowledge  of  the  demonism  of  the  world.  Though 
thousands  of  miles  from  Oregon,  still  when  he  smells  that  savage 
musk,  the  rending,  goring  bison  herds  are  as  present  as  to  the 
deserted  wild  foal  of  the  prairies,  which  this  instant  they  may 
be  trampling  into  dust. 

"Thus,  then,  the  muffled  rollings  of  the  milky  sea;  the  bleak 
rustlings  of  the  festooned  frosts  of  mountains;  the  desolate  shift- 
ings  of  the  windrowed  snows  of  prairies;  all  these,  to  Ishmael, 
are  as  the  shaking  of  that  buffalo  robe  to  the  frightened  colt! 

"Though  neither  knows  where  lie  the  nameless  things  of 
which  the  mystic  sign  gives  forth  such  hints;  yet  with  me,  as 
with  the  colt,  somewhere  those  things  must  exist.  Though  in 
many  of  its  aspects,  this  visible  world  seems  formed  in  love,  the 
invisible  spheres  were  formed  in  fright. 

"But  not  yet  have  we  solved  the  incantation  of  this  whiteness, 
and  learned  why  it  appeals  with  such  power  to  the  soul;  and 
more  strange  and  far  more  portentous— why,  as  we  have  seen, 
it  is  at  once  the  most  meaning  symbol  of  spiritual  things,  nay, 
the  very  veil  of  the  Christian's  Deity;  and  yet  should  be  as  it  is, 
the  intensifying  agent  in  things  the  most  appalling  to  mankind. 

"Is  it  that  by  its  indefiniteness  it  shadows  forth  the  heartless 
voids  and  immensities  of  the  universe,  and  thus  stabs  us  from 
behind  with  the  thought  of  annihilation,  when  beholding  the 
depths  of  the  milky  way?  Or  is  it  that  in  essence  whiteness  is  not 
so  much  a  color  as  the  visible  absence  of  color,  and  at  the  same 
time  the  concrete  of  all  colors;  is  it  for  these  reasons  that  there 
is  such  a  dumb  blankness,  full  of  meaning,  in  a  wide  landscape 
of  snows— a  colorless  all-color  of  atheism  from  which  we  shrink? 
And  when  we  consider  that  other  theory  of  the  natural  philoso- 
phers, that  all  other  earthly  hues— every  stately  or  lovely  embla- 
zoning—the sweet  tinges  of  sunset  skies  and  woods;  yea,  and  the 
gilded  velvets  of  butterflies,  and  the  butterfly  cheeks  of  young 
girls;  all  these  are  but  subtle  deceits,  not  actually  inherent  in 


substances,  but  only  laid  on  from  without;  so  that  all  deified 
nature  absolutely  paints  like  the  harlot,  whose  allurements  cover 
nothing  but  the  charnel-house  within;  and  when  we  proceed  fur- 
ther, and  consider  that  the  mystical  cosmetic  which  produces 
every  one  of  her  hues,  the  great  principle  of  light,  for  ever  re- 
mains white  or  colorless  in  itself,  and  if  operating  without  me- 
dium upon  matter,  would  touch  all  objects,  even  tulips  and  roses, 
with  its  own  blank  tinge— pondering  all  this,  the  palsied  universe 
lies  before  us  a  leper;  and  like  wilfull  travellers  in  Lapland,  who 
refuse  to  wear  colored  and  coloring  glasses  upon  their  eyes,  so 
the  wretched  infidel  gazes  himself  blind  at  the  monumental 
white  shroud  that  wraps  all  the  prospect  around  him.  And  of  all 
these  things  the  Albino  whale  was  the  symbol.  Wonder  ye  then 
at  the  fiery  hunt?" 

Through  elaborate  and  magnificent  physical  description  we 
are  made  to  realize  the  tremendousness  of  the  whale  and  of  his 
medium;  through  exposition  of  this  nature,  we  are  shown  his 
spiritual  significance.  It  is  not  that  one  object  stands  for  another, 
as  a  bare  allegorical  formula;  the  relationship  is  more  fully  and 
subtly  developed  in  the  book  than  one  can  develop  it  in  sum- 
mary. The  possibility  that  the  physical  and  the  spiritual  are  one 
and  the  same,  according  to  the  terms  employed,  is  established; 
and  one  is  convinced,  with  Ahab,  for  the  time  being,  of  the  prob- 
ability in  this  instance.  Or  if  one  is  not,  one  is  brought  to  an 
understanding  of  Ahab's  conviction;  so  that  his  entire  course  of 
action  becomes,  in  its  spiritual  effect,  what  it  was  for  him  in 
literal  fact,  a  defiance  of  the  divine  order. 

The  union  of  the  physical  and  the  spiritual  is  at  all  times  im- 
pressive in  this  narrative;  it  reaches,  in  two  descriptions  of  Moby 
Dick  himself,  a  sublimity  and  terror  probably  never  surpassed  in 
literature,  and  but  seldom  equalled.  The  first,  and  slighter,  is  the 
description  of  the  spirit-spout,  which -lured  Ahab  into  the  far 

"It  was  while  gliding  through  these  latter  waters  that  one 
serene  and  moonlight  night,  when  all  the  waves  rolled  by  like 
scrolls  of  silver;  and,  by  their  soft  suffusing  seethings,  made  what 
seemed  a  silvery  silence,  not  a  solitude:  on  such  a  silent  night  a 

silvery  jet  was  seen  far  in  advance  of  the  white  bubbles  at  the 
bow.  Lit  up  by  the  moon,  it  looked  celestial;  seemed  some 
plumed  and  glittering  god  uprising  from  the  sea.  Fedallah  first 
descried  this  jet.  For  of  these  moonlit  nights,  it  was  his  wont  to 
mount  to  the  mainmast  head,  and  stand  a  look-out  there,  with 
the  same  precision  as  if  it  had  been  day.  And  yet,  though  herds 
of  whales  were  seen  by  night,  not  one  whaleman  in  a  hundred 
would  venture  a  lowering  for  them.  You  may  think  with  what 
emotions,  then,  the  seamen  beheld  this  Oriental  perched  aloft 
at  such  unusual  hours;  his  turban  and  the  moon,  companions  in 
one  sky.  But  when,  after  spending  his  uniform  interval  there 
for  several  successive  nights  without  uttering  a  single  sound; 
when,  after  all  this  silence,  his  unearthly  voice  was  heard  an- 
nouncing that  silvery  moonlit  jet,  every  reclining  mariner  started 
to  his  feet  as  if  some  winged  spirit  had  lighted  in  the  rigging, 
and  hailed  the  mortal  crew/' 

The  second  is  the  description  of  Moby  Dick  near  the  close  of 
the  book,  when  he  is  actually  sighted  by  daylight  for  the  first 

"Like  noiseless  nautilus  shells,  their  light  prows  sped  through 
the  sea;  but  only  slowly  they  neared  the  foe.  As  they  neared  him, 
the  ocean  grew  still  more  smooth;  seemed  drawing  a  carpet  over 
its  waves;  seemed  a  noon-meadow,  so  serenely  it  spread.  At 
length  the  breathless  hunter  came  so  nigh  his  seemingly  unsus- 
pecting prey,  that  his  entire  dazzling  hump  was  distinctly  visible, 
sliding  along  the  sea  as  if  an  isolated  thing,  and  continually  set 
in  a  revolving  ring  of  finest,  fleecy,  greenish  foam.  He  saw  the 
vast,  involved  wrinkles  of  the  slightly  projecting  head  beyond. 
Before  it,  far  out  on  the  soft  Turkish-rugged  waters,  went  the 
glistening  white  shadow  from  his  broad,  milky  forehead,  a  musi- 
cal rippling  playfully  accompanying  the  shade;  and  behind,  the 
blue  waters  interchangeably  flowed  over  into  the  moving  valley 
of  his  steady  wake;  and  on  either  hand  bright  bubbles  rose  and 
danced  by  his  side.  But  these  were  broken  again  by  the  light  toes 
of  hundreds  of  gay  fowls  softly  feathering  the  sea,  alternate  with 
their  fitful  flight;  and  like  to  some  flag-staff  rising  from  the 
painted  hull  of  an  argosy,  the  tall  but  shattered  pole  of  a  recent 


lance  projected  from  the  White  Whale's  back;  and  at  intervals 
one  of  the  cloud  of  soft-toed  fowls  hovering,  and  to  and  fro  skim- 
ming like  a  canopy  over  the  fish,  silently  perched  and  rocked  on 
this  pole,  the  long  tail-feathers  streaming  like  pennons. 

"A  gentle  joyousness,  a  mighty  mildness  of  repose  in  swift- 
ness, invested  the  gliding  whale.  Not  the  white  bull  Jupiter 
swimming  away  with  ravished  Europa  clinging  to  his  graceful 
horns;  his  lovely  leering  eyes  sideways  intent  upon  the  maid; 
with  smooth  bewitching  fleetness,  rippling  straight  for  the  nup- 
tial bower  in  Crete;  not  Jove,  not  that  mighty  majesty  Supreme! 
did  surpass  the  glorified  White  Whale  as  he  so  divinely  swam. 

"On  each  soft  side— coincident  with  the  parted  swell,  that  but 
once  leaving  him,  then  flowed  so  wide  away— on  each  bright 
side,  the  whale  shed  off  enticings.  No  wonder  there  had  been 
some  among  the  hunters  who  namelessly  transported  and  al- 
lured by  all  this  serenity,  had  ventured  to  assail  it;  but  had  fatally 
found  that  quietude  but  the  vesture  of  tornadoes.  Yet  calm,  en- 
ticing calm,  oh  whale!  thou  glidest  on,  to  all  who  for  the  first 
time  eye  thee,.  no  matter  how  many  in  that  same  way  thou  may'st 
have  bejuggled  and  destroyed  before. 

"And  thus,  through  the  serene  tranquillities  of  the  tropical 
sea,  among  waves  whose  handclappings  were  suspended  by  ex- 
ceeding rapture,  Moby  Dick  moved  on,  still  withholding  from 
sight  the  full  terrors  of  his  submerged  trunk,  entirely  hiding  the 
wrenched  hideousness  of  his  jaw.  But  soon  the  fore  part  of  him 
slowly  rose  from  the  water;  for  an  instant  his  whole  marbleized 
body  formed  a  high  arch,  like  Virginia's  Natural  Bridge,  and 
warningly  waving  his  bannered  flukes  in  the  air,  the  grand  god 
revealed  himself,  sounded,  and  went  out  of  sight.  Hoveringly 
halting,  and  dipping  on  the  wing,  the  white  sea-fowls  longingly 
lingered  over  the  agitated  pool  that  he  left/' 

We  have  now  the  main  outline  of  the  plot  and  symbolism  of 
the  book;  with  these  in  mind,  the  reader  can  readily  distinguish 
the  significance  of  the  smaller  details. 

The  book  has  more  or  less  defied  classification,  yet  chiefly  be- 
cause it  fuses  categories  in  the  matter  of  structure,  so  as  to  pro- 
duce a  new  structure,  and  because  it  is  long  and  complex  and 

has  been  imperfectly  studied:  it  is  beyond  a  cavil  one  of  the  most 
carefully  and  successfully  constructed  of  all  the  major  works  of 
literature;  to  find  it  careless,  redundant,  or  in  any  sense  romantic, 
as  even  its  professed  admirers  are  prone  to  do,  is  merely  to  mis- 
read the  book  and  to  be  ignorant  of  the  history  leading  up  to  it. 
The  book  is  less  a  novel  than  an  epic  poem.  The  plot  is  too 
immediately  interpenetrated  with  idea  to  lend  itself  easily  to  the 
manner  of  the  novelist.  The  language  in  which  it  is  written  is 
closer  to  the  poetry  of  Paradise  Lost  or  of  Hamlet  than  it  is  to 
the  prose  of  the  realistic  novelist.  The  extremes  of  prosaic  and 
of  poetic  language,  each  at  a  high  level  of  excellence,  might  be 
illustrated  by  the  prose  of  The  Age  of  Innocence,  on  the  one 
hand,  and  by  one  of  the  best  sonnets  of  Shakespeare  on  the 
other:  the  extreme  of  prose  is  the  recounting  of  individual  facts; 
the  extreme  of  poetry  is  the  lyrical,  in  the  best  sense;  that  is,  the 
expository  concentration  of  a  motivating  concept,  in  language 
such  that  motivating  concept  and  motivated  feeling  are  expressed 
simultaneously  and  in  brief  space.  Between  these  extremes,  but 
a  little  nearer  to  the  sonnet  than  to  Mrs.  Wharton,  is  the  lan- 
guage of  the  great  epic  or  dramatic  poem:  in  Macbeth,  or  in 
Paradise  Lost,  the  individual  passage  is  never  self-sustaining  in 
the  same  measure  as  the  poetry  of  the  great  sonnet  by  either 
author;  even  the  greatest  passages  are  dependent  upon  the  struc- 
ture and  upon  the  total  theme  for  their  greatness,  and  must  be 
read  in  their  context  if  they  are  not  to  seem  inferior  in  quality  to 
the  shorter  poems.  This  does  not  mean  that  they  are  an  inferior 
kind  of  poetry;  it  means  that  they  are  a  different  kind  of  poetry. 
In  the  prose  of  Moby  Dick,  this  difference  in  texture  is  carried 
a  little  farther,  but  only  a  very  little.  The  prose,  of  Moby  Dick, 
though  mechanically  it  is  prose  and  not  verse— except  for  those 
passages  where  it  occasionally  falls  fragmentarily  into  iambic 
pentameter— is  by  virtue  of  its  elaborate  rhythms  and  heightened 
rhetoric  closer  in  its  aesthetic  result  to  the  poetry  of  Paradise  Lost 
than  to  the  prose  of  Mrs.  Wharton.  The  instrument,  as  an  in- 
vention, and  even  when  we  are  familiar  with  the  great  prose  of 
the  seventeenth  century  as  its  background,  is  essentially  as  origi- 
nal and  powerful  an  invention  as  the  blank  verse  of  Milton.  On 


the  whole,  we  may  fairly  regard  the  work  as  essentially  a  poetic 

If  we  so  regard  it,  however— that  is,  if  we  regard  it  as  an  epic 
poem— we  must  mark  another  exception.  Except  in  Paradise 
Lost,  that  other  great  masterpiece  of  more  or  less  Calvinistic 
literature— the  epic  hero  is  normally  a  successful  figure,  and  not 
a  tragical  one;  Ahab,  on  the  other  hand,  obeys  the  traditional  law 
of  tragedy,  and  destroys  himself  through  allowing  himself  to  be 
dominated  by  an  heroic  vice:  he  is  another  Coriolanus,  but  in 
dimensions  epical,  in  the  quality  of  his  mind  and  of  his  sin  meta- 
physical, and  in  his  motivating  ideas  Calvinistical.  One  should 
note  that  Melville,  in  writing  a  tragic  instead  of  a  traditionally 
heroic  epic,  displayed  a  thorough  understanding  of  his  material : 
the  Calvinistic  view  led  to  sin  and  catastrophe,  not  to  triumph, 
although  at  times  to  sin  and  catastrophe  on  an  inspired  and  heroic 
scale;  Ahab  is  the  magnificent  fruition  of  Maule's  curse.  Melville, 
on  the  other  hand,  escaped  the  curse  by  comprehending  it. 

The  book,  then,  partakes  in  some  measure  of  the  qualities  of 
a  novel  and  of  a  tragic  drama;  but  essentially  it  is  an  epic  poem. 
Form  and  subject  are  mastered  with  a  success  equal  to  that  ob- 
servable in  Milton,  Vergil,  or  Shakespeare. 

The  book  is  not  only  a  great  epic;  it  is  profoundly  an  Ameri- 
can epic.  It  is  easy  to  exaggerate  the  importance  of  nationalism  in 
literature,  but  in  this  particular  case,  the  nationalism  is  the  his- 
torical element,  and  not  to  perceive  it  is  to  fail  to  understand  the 
very  subject  of  the  book.  In  its  physical  events,  Moby  Dick  is  a 
narration  of  exploration  and  heroic  adventure;  it  is  thus  typical 
of  the  United  States  of  the  nineteenth  century,  by  land  as  well 
as  by  sea:  "They  may  celebrate  as  they  will  the  heroes  of  Explor- 
ing Expeditions,  your  Cookes,  your  Krusensterns;  but  I  say  that 
scores  of  anonymous  captains  have  sailed  out  of  Nantucket,  that 
were  as  great  and  greater  than  your  Cooke  and  your  Krusenstern. 
For  in  their  succorless  empty-handedness,  they,  in  the  heathenish 
sharked  waters,  and  by  the  beaches  of  unrecorded  javelin  islands, 
battled  with  virgin  wonders  and  terrors  that  Cooke  with  all  his 
marines  and  muskets  would  not  have  willingly  dared/' 

The  adventure,  in  its  physical  aspects,  is  of  New  England  and 


hence  by  sea;  the  original  New  Englanders,  indeed,  two  cen- 
turies earlier,  had  adventured  by  sea  into  a  virgin  wilderness,  be- 
lieving themselves  led  by  God,  and  there  had  wrestled  with  the 
Wonders  of  the  Invisible  World.  The  fusion  of  the  physical  with 
the  spiritual  in  New  England  is  older  than  Melville;  the  New 
Englanders  of  whom  Melville  wrote  were  descended  from  the 
Mathers  and  their  townsmen,  from  the  contemporaries  of  the 
more  recent  Jonathan  Edwards,  men  who  saw  chimneys  suddenly 
leap  into  flame  in  the  midst  of  a  revival  sermon,  upon  whom  a 
church  might  fall,  immediately  following  a  preacher's  prophecy 
of  doom.  With  physical  and  spiritual  adventure  alike,  and  with 
the  two  interpenetrative,  the  New  Englanders  were  familiar  from 
childhood,  had  even  been  familiar  for  generations,  so  that  Mel- 
ville but  spoke  the  literal  truth  of  his  representative  New  Eng- 
landers, those  of  Nantucket,  when  he  spoke  with  double  meaning 
of  their  adventures  at  sea:  'The  Nantucketer,  he  alone  resides 
and  riots  on  the  sea;  he  alone,  in  Bible  language,  goes  down  to  it 
in  ships;  to  and  fro  ploughing  it  as  his  own  special  plantation. 
There  is  his  home;  there  lies  his  business,  which  a  Noah's  flood 
would  not  interrupt,  though  it  overwhelmed  all  the  millions  in 
China.  He  lives  on  the  sea,  as  prairie  cocks  in  the  prairie;  he 
hides  among  the  waves,  he  climbs  them  as  chamois  hunters  climb 
the  Alps.  For  years  he  knows  not  the  land;  so  that  when  he  comes 
to  it  at  last,  it  smells  like  another  world,  more  strangely  than  the 
moon  would  to  an  Earthsman.  With  the  landless  gull,  that  at 
sunset  folds  her  wings  and  is  rocked  to  sleep  between  billows;  so 
at  nightfall,  the  Nantucketer,  out  of  sight  of  land,  furls  his  sails, 
and  lays  him  to  rest,  while  under  his  very  pillow  rush  herds  of 
walruses  and  whales." 


The  greatest  works  of  Melville,  aside  from  Moby  Dick,  and 
contrary  to  the  popular  view,  are  among  those  which  follow,  not 
among  those  which  precede  it.  They  are  Benito  Cereno,  The 


Encantadas,  and  Billy  Budd.  These  works,  in  the  matter  of  style, 
are  essentially  prose;  The  Encantadas  contains  traces  of  the  style 
of  Moby  Dick,  along  with  traces  of  its  subject-matter,  but  the 
rhetoric  is  subdued  in  structure  and  in  feeling.  In  Benito  Cereno, 
and  in  the  other  later  works,  there  is  scarcely  a  trace  of  the  style 
of  Moby  Dick;  we  have  the  style  of  a  novelist,  and  in  Benito 
Cereno  especially  this  style  occurs  in  a  form  both  classical  and 

The  subject  matter  of  the  first  two  of  the  later  masterpieces 
may  be  briefly  defined:  In  Benito  Cereno,  the  Spanish  sea- 
captain  of  that  name  takes  insufficient  precautions  in  the  trans- 
porting of  a  ship-load  of  negro  slaves  belonging  to  a  friend;  the 
slaves  mutiny,  kill  most  of  the  crew,  and  enslave  the  remainder, 
including  the  captain.  When  Cereno  is  finally  rescued  by  Cap- 
tain Delano,  he  is  broken  in  spirit,  and  says  that  he  can  return 
home  but  to  die.  When  Captain  Delano  inquires  what  has  cast 
such  a  shadow  upon  him,  he  answers:  "The  negro/'  His  reply  in 
Spanish  would  have  signified  not  only  the  negro,  or  the  black 
man,  but  by%  metaphorical  extension  the  basic  evil  in  human 
nature.  The  morality  of  slavery  is  not  an  issue  in  this  story;  the 
issue  is  this,  that  through  a  series  of  acts  of  performance  and  of 
negligence,  the  fundamental  evil  of  a  group  of  men,  evil  which 
normally  should  have  been  kept  in  abeyance,  was  freed  to  act. 
The  story  is  a  portrait  of  that  evil  in  action,  as  shown  in  the 
negroes,  and  of  the  effect  of  the  action,  as  shown  in  Cereno.  It  is 
appalling  in  its  completeness,  in  its  subtle  horror,  and  in  its  silky 

In  The  Encantadas,  we  have  a  series  of  ten  sketches,  descrip- 
tive of  the  Galdpagos  Islands.  These  islands,  as  described  by  Mel- 
ville, are  more  of  the  sea,  as  the  sea  appears  in  Moby  Dick,  than 
is  any  other  land.  In  the  first  place  they  are  so  surrounded  by 
treacherous  calms  and  ocean  currents,  that  for  many  years  their 
exact  location  was  wrongly  charted,  two  groups  of  islands  at  a 
considerable  distance  apart  having  been  charted  instead  of  one: 
it  was  this  mysterious  quality  which  gave  them  their  early  name, 
The  Enchanted  Islands.  Further,  of  all  land  they  are  the  most 
barren,  according  to  Melville,  and  the  most  hostile  to  human  life : 

they  are  inhabited  only  by  reptiles  and  by  seabirds,  and  one  or 
two  of  them  by  the  most  desperate  and  debased  of  human  rene- 

Melville's  descriptive  power  in  this  series  is  at  its  best;  the 
islands  in  all  their  barren  and  archaic  horror  are  realized  unfor- 
gettably. The  climax  of  the  series  is  the  account  of  Hunilla,  the 
Chola,  who  went  to  the  islands  with  her  husband  and  her  brother 
to  gather  turtle  oil,  much  as  the  Nantucketers  went  to  sea  for 
the  oil  of  the  whale.  Her  husband  and  her  brother  were  drowned 
while  fishing.  The  ship  that  left  them  did  not  return.  She  was 
ravished  by  the  boat-crews  of  two  whalers  and  left  behind  by 
them,  and  was  ultimately  rescued  and  returned  to  Peru  by  the 
ship  of  which  Melville  was  one  of  the  seamen.  She  was  thus  a 
victim  of  the  sea;  that  is,  of  brute  chance  and  brutal  malice, 
forces  over  which  she  had  no  control,  and  in  the  face  of  which 
the  only  supporting  virtues  were  absolute  humility  and  absolute 
fortitude:  "The  last  seen  of  the  lone  Hunilla  she  was  passing  into 
Payta  town,  riding  upon  a  small  gray  ass;  and  before  her  on  the 
ass's  shoulders,  she  eyed  the  jointed  workings  of  the  beast's 
armorial  cross." 

The  subject  of  Billy  Budd  may  best  be  considered  after  a  short 
account  of  Pierre  and  The  Confidence  Man,  the  two  works  which 
in  reality,  though  unsuccessful,  do  more  to  clarify  Melville's  total 
work  than  any  book  save  Moby  Dick,  and  which  have  above  all 
others  left  his  critics  in  the  most  abysmal  confusion. 

The  plot  of  Pierre,  or  The  Ambiguities  may  be  summarized 
briefly  thus:  Pierre  Glendinning,  the  son  of  a  wealthy  and  aristo- 
cratic New  York  family,  discovers  that  he  has  an  illegitimate 
half-sister  the  daughter  of  his  father  and  of  a  young  French  girl. 
This  is  a  severe  shock,  for  he  had  revered  his  father's  memory 
deeply.  The  sister,  Isabel,  is  without  friends  or  funds.  Pierre  feels 
morally  bound  to  help  her  in  some  manner,  and  also  in  some  way 
to  acknowledge  her,  to  unite  his  life  to  hers,  yet  he  knows  that  to 
acknowledge  her  as  a  sister  will  blight  his  mother's  life.  Hence, 
though  he  is  engaged  to  marry  Lucy  Tartan,  he  announces 
to  Lucy  and  his  mother  that  he  and  Isabel  have  been  secretly 
married,  and  he  takes  Isabel  to  New  York,  and  tries  to  support 


himself  by  his  pen.  His  mother  disowns  and  disinherits  him. 
Lucy  is  prostrated,  but  recovers  and  follows  Pierre  to  New  York, 
where  she  joins  the  household  under  the  guise  of  a  cousin.  She 
is  pursued  by  her  brother  and  by  Pierre's  cousin,  who  has  sup- 
planted Pierre  as  the  Glendinning  heir.  Pierre  kills  the  cousin; 
Lucy  dies  of  shock  and  Pierre  and  Isabel  commit  suicide  in 
Pierre's  prison  cell. 

Now  despite  the  difference  in  plot  and  in  subject  matter,  the 
idea  of  this  book  is  the  same  as  that  governing  Moby  Dick,  but 
with  a  shift  in  emphasis:  it  is  the  relationship  of  principle  to  per- 
ception, and  the  difficulty  of  adjusting  principle  to  perception  in 
such  a  manner  as  to  permit  a  judgment  which  shall  be  a  valid 
motive  to  action.  In  Moby  Dick,  Melville  assumed  that  such 
judgment,  though  difficult,  was  possible;  Ahab  sinned  by  disre- 
garding the  counsel  of  Starbuck  (the  critical  intellect),  by  de- 
stroying his  nautical  instruments,  with  the  aid  of  which  he  main- 
tained his  position  while  at  sea  (that  is,  in  the  half-known)  with 
relation  to  the  land  (the  known),  and  by  committing  himself 
to  his  own  unaided  instincts.  In  Pierre  and  in  The  Confidence 
Man  alike  it  is  assumed  that  valid  judgment  is  impossible,  for 
every  event,  every  fact,  every  person,  is  too  fluid,  too  unbounded 
to  be  known: 

"If  among  the  deeper  significances  of  its  pervading  indefinite- 
ness/'  he  says  in  Pierre>  "which  significances  are  wisely  hidden 
from  all  but  the  rarest  adepts,  the  pregnant  tragedy  of  Hamlet 
convey  any  one  particular  moral  at  all  fitted  to  the  ordinary  uses 
of  man,  it  is  this: —that  all  meditation  is  worthless,  unless  it 
prompt  to  action;  that  it  is  not  for  man  to  stand  shilly-shallying 
amid  the  conflicting  invasions  of  surrounding  impulses;  that  in 
the  earliest  instant  of  conviction,  the  roused  man  must  strike, 
and,  if  possible,  with  the  precision  and  force  of  the  lightning 

This  is  obviously  the  counsel  of  the  despairing  moralist;  briefly, 
it  may  be  reduced  to  this  advice:  act  quickly,  for  if  you  give  your- 
self time  to  reconsider,  you  will  be  unable  to  act.  Pierre  acts— he 
surely  cannot  be  accused  of  moral  paralysis—but  he  acts  hastily 
and  on  unsound  principles;  he  is  convinced  that  the  world  is  one 
of  moral  confusion,  and  he  proceeds  in  confusion;  intellectually, 

if  not  emotionally,  he  is  satisfied  with  confusion;  and  for  the  time 
being  his  author  is  at  one  with  him  in  this  respect.  The  following 
passage  from  Pierre  recalls,  in  its  governing  idea,  the  invocation 
to  Bulkington,  but  again  with  the  change  of  emphasis  charac- 
teristic of  the  later  work: 

"As  the  vine  flourishes,  as  the  grape  empurples,  close  up  to  the 
very  walls  and  muzzles  of  cannoned  Ehrenbreitstein;  so  do  the 
sweetest  joys  of  life  grow  in  the  very  jaws  of  its  perils. 

"But  is  life,  indeed,  a  thing  for  all  infidel  levities,  and  we,  its 
misdeemed  beneficiaries,  so  utterly  fools  and  infatuate,  that  what 
we  take  to  be  our  strongest  tower  of  delight,  only  stands  at  the 
caprice  of  the  minutest  event— the  falling  of  a  leaf,  the  hearing  of 
a  voice,  or  the  receipt  of  one  little  bit  of  paper  scratched  over  with 
a  few  small  characters  by  a  sharpened  feather?" 

The  substance  of  this  passage  is  this:  that  our  safety  is  mo- 
mentary and  precarious;  but  that  there  is  no  trustworthy  pre- 
caution that  we  can  take  against  evil.  It  thus  resembles  the  invo- 
cation to  Bulkington  in  its  general  proposition,  but  differs  from 
it,  in  that  the  present  passage  would  imply  that  Bulkington's 
efforts  were  unavailing. 

Isabel,  similarly,  after  telling  how  she  gradually  regained  a 
normal  attitude  after  being  removed  from  the  madhouse  at  the 
age  of  nine  or  ten,  and  being  placed  with  a  friendly  family,  re- 
marks: "I  cannot  speak  coherently  here;  but  somehow  I  felt  that 
all  good  harmless  men  and  women  were  human  things,  placed 
at  cross-purposes,  in  a  world  of  snakes  and  lightnings,  in  a  world 
of  horrible  and  inscrutable  inhumanities/' 

There  are  in  the  plot  of  Pierre,  two  situations  in  particular, 
the  two  central  issues  of  the  book,  which  are  intended  to  illus- 
trate the  ambiguity  of  all  supposed  morality.  One  is  the  double 
image  of  his  father:  that  of  the  father  remembered  and  repre- 
sented by  the  portrait  painted  after  his  marriage;  and  that  of  the 
young  rake  who  begot  Isabel,  whose  existence  was  suddenly  dis- 
closed to  Pierre,  and  who  is  represented  by  the  portrait  painted 
when  he  was  visiting  Isabel's  mother.  Between  the  extremes  of 
the  two  portraits  Pierre's  judgment  of  his  father  blurs  and  shifts 
and  cannot  be  fixed;  it  is  this  difficulty  that  disturbed  Pierre  to 


the  extent  that  he  precipitately  projected  himself  into  the  rela- 
tionship with  Isabel.  This  relationship  provides  the  second  am- 
biguity, for  though  at  the  time  of  his  action  Pierre  believed  that 
he  was  acting  wholly  for  moral  and  generous  reasons,  he  dis- 
covered immediately  after  acting  that  he  was  the  victim  of  an 
incestuous  passion  for  Isabel,  so  that  he  learns  to  distrust  his  own 
motives.  At  the  conclusion  of  the  book,  the  author  confronts  the 
reader  with  a  final  ambiguity,  the  problem  of  judging  Pierre: 
"  'All's  over  and  ye  know  him  not!'  came  gasping  from  the  wall; 
and  from  the  fingers  of  Isabel  dropped  an  empty  vial— as  it  had 
been  a  run-out  sand-glass— and  shivered  upon  the  floor;  and  her 
whole  form  sloped  sideways,  and  she  fell  upon  Pierre's  heart, 
and  her  long  hair  ran  over  him  and  arbored  him  in  ebon  vines." 

The  lecture  of  Plotinus  Plinlimmon  on  clocks  and  chronom- 
eters, which  falls  into  Pierre's  hands  as  a  kind  of  warning,  teaches 
that  we  should  establish  a  working  compromise  between  absolute 
and  worldly  truth,  if  we  are  not  to  destroy  ourselves.  This  also 
is  the  moral  of  Moby  Dick:  the  need  of  recognizing  not  only 
man's  aspirations,  but  his  limitations.  Pierre,  however,  like  Ahab, 
lacks  humility;  unlike  Ahab,  he  is  not  seen  by  his  author  in  per- 
spective—that is,  Melville  agrees  with  him:  'In  those  Hyper- 
borean regions,  to  which  enthusiastic  Truth,  and  Earnestness, 
and  Independence,  will  invariably  lead  a  mind  fitted  by  nature 
for  profound  and  fearless  thoughts,  all  objects  are  seen  in  a 
dubious,  uncertain,  and  refracting  light.  Viewed  through  that 
rarified  atmosphere  the  most  immemorially  admitted  maxims  of 
men  begin  to  slide  and  fluctuate,  and  finally  become  wholly  in- 
verted; the  very  heavens  themselves  being  not  innocent  of  pro- 
ducing this  confounding  effect,  since  it  is  mostly  in  the  heavens 
themselves  that  these  wonderful  mirages  are  exhibited. 

"But  the  example  of  many  minds  forever  lost,  like  undiscov- 
erable  arctic  explorers,  amid  those  treacherous  regions,  warns  us 
entirely  away  from  them;  and  we  learn  that  it  is  not  for  man  to 
follow  the  trail  of  truth  too  far,  since  by  so  doing  he  entirely  loses 
the  directing  compass  of  his  mind;  for  arrived  at  the  Pole,  to 
whose  barrenness  only  it  points,  there,  the  needle  indifferently 
respects  all  points  of  the  horizon  alike." 

This  morality  is  that  of  the  book:  that  the  final  truth  is  abso- 
lute ambiguity,  and  that  nothing  can  be  judged.  It  frustrates  all 
action,  including  that  of  the  artist  and  that  of  the  critic.  We  are 
explicitly  informed  that  we  cannot  judge  Pierre;  the  essence  of 
Pierre  is  that  he  can  judge  nothing  and  that  all  his  actions  derive 
from  confusion  and  end  in  it.  It  is  small  wonder  that  a  book  com- 
posed in  this  temporary  twilight  should  have  been  so  unsatisfac- 
tory as  a  whole  and  in  detail;  for  a  work  of  art,  like  each  detail 
comprising  it,  is  by  definition  a  judgment.  The  prose  of  Pierre 
is  excited  and  inflated;  it  contains  brilliant  passages,  but  in  the 
main  is  a  bad  compromise  between  the  prose  of  Moby  Dick  and 
the  prose  of  the  novelist. 

The  theme  of  The  Confidence  Man  is  identical;  the  details  of 
the  action  are  very  different.  The  action  takes  place  on  a  Missis- 
sippi River  steamer,  aboard  which  a  confidence  man,  a  scoundrel 
of  metaphysical  abilities  and  curiosity,  operates  partly  for  profit 
and  partly  for  malicious  enjoyment.  He  appears  in  various  dis- 
guises: as  the  deaf  mute  in  cream-colored  clothes;  as  the  negro 
cripple;  as  the  man  in  mourning;  as  the  man  in  the  gray  coat 
and  the  white  tie;  as  the  President  of  the  Black  Rapids  Coal  Com- 
pany; as  the  herb  doctor;  as  "the  man  with  the  brass  plate/'  or  the 
representative  of  the  Philosophical  Intelligence  Office;  and  as  the 

In  each  avatar,  the  Confidence  Man  tries  to  beguile  his  fellow- 
travelers  into  feeling  enough  confidence  in  him  to  give  him 
money;  that  is,  to  form  a  judgment  on  which  they  are  willing  to 
act.  It  should  be  noted,  of  course,  that  if  they  do  so,  they  are 
hoodwinked.  The  word  confidence  recurs  repeatedly,  and  is  the 
key-word  of  the  allegory. 

In  the  third  chapter,  after  the  man  with  the  wooden  leg  (a 
major  disseminator  of  distrust)  has  nearly  started  a  riot  against 
the  crippled  negro,  the  Methodist  Minister  moves  to  the  center 
of  things,  gives  the  man  with  the  wooden  leg  a  beating,  and  ad- 
dresses the  crowd: 

"Oh  friends,  oh  beloved,  how  are  we  admonished  by  the  mel- 
ancholy spectacle  of  this  raver.  Let  us  profit  by  the  lesson;  and 
is  it  not  this:  that  if,  next  to  mistrusting  Providence,  there  be 


ought  that  a  man  should  pray  against,  it  is  against  mistrusting 
his  fellow-man.  I  have  been  in  mad-houses  full  of  tragic  mopers, 
and  seen  there  the  end  of  suspicion :  the  cynic,  in  the  moody  mad- 
ness muttering  in  the  corner;  for  years  a  barren  fixture  there; 
head  lopped  over,  gnawing  his  own  lip,  vulture  of  himself;  while 
by  fits  and  starts  from  the  opposite  corner  came  the  grimaces  of 
the  idiot  at  him/' 

This  sounds  well,  till  we  remember  the  context;  the  minister, 
in  avoiding  the  madhouse,  becomes  a  dupe.  This  antithesis  alone, 
or  the  escape  into  deliberate  hypocrisy,  is  all  that  Melville  will 
allow  in  this  book;  the  possibility  of  the  reasonable  skepticism  of 
the  cautious  and  critical  man,  as  a  prelude  to  a  judgment  at  least 
practically  usable,  he  will  not  admit. 

The  man  in  the  gray  coat  and  the  white  tie  is  trying  to  restore 
the  confidence  of  the  young  minister  (not  the  Methodist  Minis- 
ter) in  the  old  negro,  when  they  encounter  the  man  with  the 
wooden  leg,  who  laughs  insanely  and  tells  an  anecdote  casting 
ridicule  on  confidence.  The  man  with  the  wooden  leg  claims  that 
the  negro  is  a%white  imposter.  The  man  with  the  gray  coat  and 
the  white  tie  says: 

"  Tell  me,  sir,  do  you  really  think  that  a  white  could  look  the 
negro  so?  For  one,  I  should  call  it  pretty  good  acting/ 

"  'Not  much  better  than  any  other  man  acts/ 

"  'How?  Does  all  the  world  act?  Am  I,  for  instance,  an  actor? 
Is  my  reverend  friend  here,  too,  a  performer?' 

"  Tes,  don't  you  both  perform  acts?  To  do  is  to  act;  so  all  doers 
are  actors/  " 

The  effect  of  this  passage  is  as  follows:  to  perform  an  action 
is  to  have  confidence  in  the  motivating  judgment.  But  no  man 
save  a  hypocrite  can  profess  to  have  such  confidence.  Hence  a 
"doer"  is  an  "actor/' 

The  most  amusing  illustration  of  the  theme  is  the  story  of  the 
Indian  hater,  with  its  attendant  and  philosophical  theory  of 
Indian-hating.  The  Indian,  in  this  legend,  represents  the  man 
or  fact  to  be  judged  and  so  trusted  or  suspected;  if  trusted,  he 
is  necessarily  untrustworthy,  in  accordance  with  the  doctrine,  for 
it  is  impossible  to  obtain  knowledge  adequate  for  a  sound  judg- 

ment.  The  Indian-hater  is  one  who  trusts  no  Indian,  but  spends 
his  life  in  the  woods  killing  every  Indian  he  meets.  But  most 
Indian-haters  are  imperfect;  sometimes  one  will  unaccountably 
become  lonely  and  trust  an  Indian  at  random  and  so  meet  his 
end;  others  take  frequent  vacations  and'  return  to  their  families. 
Of  these  last,  the  narrator  says:  "For  the  diluted  Indian  hater, 
although  the  vacations  he  permits  himself  impair  the  keeping  of 
his  character,  yet,  it  should  not  be  overlooked  that  this  is  the 
man  who,  by  his  very  infirmity,  enables  us  to  form  surmises, 
however  inadequate,  of  what  Indian-hating  in  its  perfection  is/' 
Henry  Adams,  I  should  imagine,  is  the  most  distinguished  ex- 
ample of  the  diluted  Indian-hater  in  our  literature. 

The  Confidence  Man  is  unsatisfactory  as  philosophy  and  is 
tediously  repetitious  as  narrative;  but  the  prose,  unlike  that  of 
Pierre,  is  crisp  and  hard,  and  in  a  few  passages  the  comment  is 
brilliant.  The  incident  of  the  mystic,  Mark  Winsome,  and  of  his 
disciple,  the  wealthy  young  merchant,  who  turns  the  mystical 
doctrine  to  practical  ends,  is  a  very  biting  commentary  on  Em- 
erson and  on  the  practical  implications  of  Emersonian  philosophy. 
Melville  was  in  a  kind  of  moral  limbo  when  he  wrote  these 
books,  however,  and  they  are  essentially  unsatisfactory,  though 
they  display  greater  intellectual  activity  than  such  works  as  White 
Jacket,  Typee,.  and  Omoo,  works  which  within  their  limits  are 
successful.  His  failure  in  the  two,  however,  is  in  a  sense  a  proof 
of  the  seriousness  with  which  he  took  his  central  problem  of 
moral  navigation;  he  considered  the  problem  in  all  its  possibili- 
ties, and  with  sufficient  imaginative  intensity  to  leave  a  fairly 
complete  record  of  his  consideration  behind  him.  The  notion 
advanced  by  Mumford  and  others,  that  these  books  come  out  of 
a  period  of  insanity,  is  as  absurd  as  the  notion  of  Weaver  that 
Pierre,  if  psychoanalyzed  in  the  proper  spirit,  is  autobiographi- 
cal. Both  theories,  of  course,  may  be  correct,  but  there  is  no  evi- 
dence to  support  either  that  would  be  admitted  in  court  by  a 
disinterested  criminal  judge;  and  furthermore,  it  is  the  relation- 
ship of  these  books  to  his  work  that  we  must  understand  if  we 
desire  to  profit  by  his  work— their  relationship  to  his  life  is  as 
unprofitable  as  it  is  unfathomable. 


Hawthorne  finished  his  career  in  much  the  same  limbo;  Henry 
Adams  passed  his  entire  career  there,  but  not  so  far  in.  There  is 
more  madness  in  The  Sense  of  the  Past,  by  Henry  James,  than 
in  either  book,  and  far  more  in  the  poetry  of  T.  S.  Eliot.  Yet 
none  of  these  writers  is  insane;  as  a  result,  rather,  of  being  in- 
volved in  historical  processes  beyond  their  own  powers  to  under- 
stand the  processes  and  extricate  themselves,  they  are  guilty  of 
forms  of  literary  procedure  which  isolate  certain  aspects  of  the 
consciousness  from  the  rest,  thus  producing,  within  the  literary 
form,  an  imperfect  intelligence;  which,  however,  if  mistaken  for 
a  perfect  portrait  and  used  as  a  model  for  imitation,  may  be  a 
step  toward  personal  disintegration. 

In  the  final  masterpiece,  Billy  Budd,  the  most  profound  of  the 
later  works,  if  not  the  best  written— the  prose,  unfortunately, 
shows  a  little  structural  awkwardness,  the  result  of  thirty  years 
of  disuse— the  problem  posed  in  Pierre  and  The  Confidence  Man 
received  its  answer.  The  plot  is  as  follows:  Billy  Budd,  a  hand- 
some young  sailor  on  a  British  frigate,  is  accused  to  the  captain 
of  conspiracy;*  the  accuser,  Claggart,  is  constitutionally  a  mali- 
cious and  dishonest  man,  who  perjures  himself  to  gratify  an  ir- 
rational dislike.  Billy  is  called  before  the  captain  to  meet  the 
accusation;  he  is  young,  strong,  and  a  man  of  quick  feeling,  and 
he  is  handicapped  by  an  innocent  mind  and  a  bad  stutter.  His 
muscles  move  quicker  than  his  tongue;  he  strikes  Claggart  in  the 
head  and  kills  him;  he  is  tried  and  hanged. 

The  captain,  Vere,  is  able  to  fathom  the  situation;  from  the 
standpoint  of  purely  private  morality,  he  sympathizes  with  Billy. 
But  Billy,  in  striking  Claggart  under  these  conditions  committed 
a  capital  crime,  and  in  killing  him  committed  another,  facts 
which  Billy  knew  perfectly;  to  free  him  would  establish  at  least 
a  precedent  for  freeing  the  whole  matter  of  criminal  justice  in 
the  navy  to  the  caprices  of  private  judgment;  the  men  would  be 
likely  to  take  advantage  of  it,  to  the  damage  of  discipline.  There 
had,  moreover,  been  serious  riots  in  the  navy  but  a  short  time 
before.  Vere  can  see  only  one  solution  to  the  situation:  to  act 
according  to  established  principle,  which  supports  public  order, 
and,  for  the  margin  of  difference  between  established  principle 


and  the  facts  of  the  particular  situation,  to  accept  it  as  private 

The  solution,  with  certain  modifications,  is  the  solution  of 
Mrs.  Wharton  for  the  same  moral  problem  as  it  was  later  posed 
by  Henry  James;  the  moral  principle,  in  the  better  works  of 
Mrs.  Wharton,  however,  is  usually  incarnate  in  a  code  of  man- 
ners, and  at  times  appears  less  defensible  than  in  Billy  Budd,  be- 
cause of  the  tendency  observable  in  codes  of  manners  to  become 
externalized  and  superficial,  to  become  insulated  from  the  prin- 
ciples informing  them  with  life.  The  solution,  in  terms  as  bald 
and  absolute  as  the  terms  of  Melville,  was  likewise  the  solution 
of  Socrates.  It  is  not  every  situation,  of  course,  which  admits  of 
a  solution  by  virtue  of  so  certain  a  reference  to  the  "known": 
there  may  be  cases,  as  Henry  James  was  later  to  demonstrate 
almost  to  his  own  undoing,  and  as  Melville  asserted  in  Moby 
Dick,  in  which  the  problem  of  moral  navigation,  though  not  in- 
soluble, is  a  subtler  one,  in  which  the  exact  relevance  of  any  single 
principle  is  harder  to  establish,  and  in  which  there  may  appear 
to  be  the  claims  of  conflicting  principles.  The  solution,  however, 
in  the  case  of  this  story,  and  as  a  matter  of  general  principle,  is 
at  once  unanswerable,  dignified,  and  profound;  the  characteriza- 
tion of  Vere  and  of  Claggart  represents  an  insight  worthy  to  be 
the  final  achievement  of  so  long  and  so  great  a  life. 


The  other  works  which  deserve  discussion  may  now  be  con- 
sidered very  briefly.  The  first  two,  Typee  and  Omoo,  are  anec- 
dotal narratives  of  personal  adventure  in  the  south  seas.  There  is 
no  guiding  theme;  the  prose  has  a  freshness  and  loveliness  that 
at  times  put  one  inexplicably  in  mind  of  the  verse  of  the  early 
Marlowe,  but  its  virtues  are  minor  and  fragmentary.  The  next 
work,  Mardi,  is  a  long  allegorical  narrative,  with  what  purports 
to  be  a  south  Pacific  setting;  it  is  the  most  ambitious  work  in 
length  and  scope,  aside  from  Moby  Dick,  and  though  scarcely 
unified  is  extremely  powerful. 

Mardi  falls  into  four  parts;  the  opening  chapters,  in  which  the 

protagonist  tells  of  his  life  on  a  Pacific  whaler;  the  subsequent 
chapters,  following  his  desertion,  with  a  comrade,  Jarl,  in  which 
he  describes  the  ocean  as  seen  from  an  open  boat,  chapters  rival- 
ling in  their  description  all  save  the  finest  descriptive  passages  in 
Moby  Dick;  the  chapters  describing  their  life  for  some  weeks  on 
a  small  island  schooner  which  they  overtake,  manned  only  by 
a  native  islander  and  his  wife,  this  section  containing  the  sharp- 
est and  most  amusing  characterization  of  island  temperament 
that  Melville  ever  achieved;  and  the  remainder  and  chief  part  of 
the  book,  which  deals  with  the  imaginary  and  allegorical  region 
of  Mardi.  The  allegory  of  the  last  part  deals  with  the  search  for 
the  maiden  Yillah,  who  appears  to  represent  earthly  happiness; 
the  narrator  and  searcher  is  pursued  by  Queen  Hautia,  who  ap- 
pears to  represent  sensual  corruption,  and  who  is  inescapably 
related  in  some  mysterious  fashion  to  Yillah,  and  by  the  sons  of 
a  priest  whom  he  slew  early  in  the  narrative  to  obtain  temporary 
possession  of  Yillah.  We  appear  to  have,  then,  the  pursuit  for 
something  approaching  romantic  love,  with  the  flight  at  once 
from  romantic  disillusionment  (Hautia)  and  from  the  conse- 
quences of  one's  own  sins  committed  in  the  name  of  love.  In 
the  search,  the  narrator  and  his  companions  visit  all  the  realms  of 
Mardi,  and  observe  every  possible  mode  of  life  and  government, 
but  they  fail  to  find  Yillah.  The  only  one  of  the  party  who  finds 
happiness  is  the  half-mad  and  embittered  philosopher,  Babbal- 
anja,  who  is  converted  to  Christianity  on  the  way,  and  who 
thereupon  renounces  the  world. 

The  theme  is  immature  and  romantic,  and  many  of  the  parts 
are  of  small  interest;  yet  many  of  the  parts,  within  the  limits  of 
their  subject,  possess  extraordinary  beauty,  and  had  Melville 
never  developed  beyond  this  point,  it  would  have  been  necessary 
to  accord  him  one  of  the  very  highest  places  in  romantic  litera- 
ture. The  most  extraordinary  portion  of  the  book  is  the  series  of 
chapters,  numbers  seventy-one  to  eighty-five,  inclusive,  dealing 
with  the  stay  in  Willamilla;  they  constitute  the  richest,  and  from 
a  rhetorical  point  of  view  the  most  powerfully  moving,  rhapsody 
on  romantic  sensuousness  with  which  I  am  acquainted.  The 
supper  of  Abrazza,  toward  the  close,  and  the  conversion  of  Bab- 


balanja,  though  briefer,  are  at  moments  nearly  as  excellent.  In 
these  passages,  and  elsewhere  in  the  book,  notably  in  the  great 
invocation  to  Kamehameha,  in  chapter  sixty-eight,  the  epic  prose 
of  Moby  Dick  is  already  highly  developed. 

In  White-Jacket  we  have  another  anecdotal  journal,  of  which 
the  high  points  are  the  account  of  Dr.  Cuticle  and  his  operation, 
and  the  brief  chapter  entitled  The  Bay  of  All  Beauties;  in  this 
work,  the  romanticism  has  already  begun  to  wane.  Redburn, 
published  in  the  same  year,  and  dealing  with  Melville's  first 
voyage,  has  similar  virtues  and  limitations,  and  is  perhaps  more 
consistently  of  interest.  Israel  Potter,  the  life  of  an  American 
patriot  of  the  Revolutionary  War,  is  one  of  the  few  great  novels 
of  pure  adventure  in  English;  it  comes  after  Moby  Dick  in  point 
of  time,  and  probably  surpasses  all  the  works  preceding  Moby 
Dick  save,  possibly,  Mardi. 


A  Crisis  in  the  History  of  American  Obscurantism 


have  called  me  mad;  but  the  question  is  not  yet  settled, 
whether  madness  is  or  is  not  the  loftiest  intelligence)-whether  much 
that  is  glorious—  whether  all  that  is  prof  ound—  does  not  spring  from 
disease  of  thought—  from  moods  of  mind  exalted  at  the  expense  of 
the  general  intellect." 

—  Eleanora 

I  AM  ABOUT  TO  promulgate  a  heresy;  namely,  that  E.  A.  Poe, 
although  he  achieved,  as  his  admirers  have  claimed,  a  remark- 
able agreement  between  his  theory  and  his  practice,  is  exception- 
ally bad  in  both.  I  am  somewhat  startled,  moreover,  to  awaken  to 
the  fact  that  this  is  a  heresy,  that  those  who  object  to  Poe  would 
do  well  to  establish  their  position  now  if  ever.  Poe  has  long  passed 
casually  with  me  and  with  most  of  my  friends  as  a  bad  writer 
accidentally  and  temporarily  popular;  the  fact  of  the  matter  is,  of 
course,  that  he  has  been  pretty  effectually  established  as  a  great 
writer  while  we  have  been  sleeping.  The  menace  lies  not,  pri- 
marily, in  his  impressionistic  admirers  among  literary  people,  of 
whom  he  still  has  some,  even  in  England  and  in  America,  where 
a  familiarity  with  his  language  ought  to  render  his  crudity  ob- 
vious, for  these  individuals  in  the  main  do  not  make  themselves 
permanently  very  effective;  it  lies  rather  in  the  impressive  body  of 
scholarship,  beginning,  perhaps,  with  Harrison,  Woodberry,  and 
Stedman,  and  continuing  down  to  such  writers  as  Campbell, 
Stovall,  and  Una  Pope-Hennessy.  Much  of  this  scholarship  is 
primarily  biographical,  historical,  and  textual;  but  when  a  writer 
is  supported  by  a  sufficient  body  of  such  scholarship,  a  very  little 
philosophical  elucidation  will  suffice  to  establish  him  in  the  schol- 
arly world  as  a  writer  whose  greatness  is  self-evident.  This  fact  is 
made  especially  evident  in  the  work  of  the  two  critics  who  come 

closest  to  taking  the  position  which  I  shall  take:  W.  C.  Brownell l 
and  especially  Norman  Foerster.2  Both  approach  the  essential 
issue;  neither  is  able,  or  it  may  be  that  because  of  its  absurdity 
neither  is  willing,  to  define  it;  and  both  maintain  the  traditional 
reverence  for  Poe  as  a  stylist,  a  reverence  which  I  believe  to  be 
at  once  unjustified  and  a  source  of  error  in  dealing  with  his 

My  consternation  became  acute  upon  the  examination  of  a 
recent  edition  of  selections  from  Poe,  prepared,  it  is  true,  merely 
as  a  classroom  text,  but  prepared  with  great  competence,  by  a 
respectable  Poe  scholar,  the  late  Margaret  Alterton,  and  by  an 
exceptionally  distinguished  scholar  in  the  field  of  the  English 
Renaissance,  Professor  Hardin  Craig.3  The  Introduction  to  this 
text,  the  first  and  second  parts  of  which  were  written  by  Miss 
Alterton  and  after  her  death  revised  by  Professor  Craig,  the  third 
part  of  which  was  written  wholly  by  Professor  Craig,  offers  the 
best  general  defense  of  Poe  with  which  I  am  acquainted;  it  is 
careful  and  thorough,  and  it  makes  as  good  a  case  for  Poe,  I 
imagine,  as  can  be  made.  And  when  one  has  finished  it,  one  has 
a  perfectly  clear  idea  of  why  it  is  wrong. 

The  problem  is  a  simple  one.  Most  of  Poe's  essential  theory  is 
summarized  in  three  essays:  The  Poetic  Principle,  The  Philoso- 
phy of  Composition,  and  The  Rationale  of  Verse.  Important  state- 
ments can  be  found  elsewhere,  and  I  shall  draw  upon  other 
essays,  but  these  essays  contain  most  of  the  essential  ideas.  Fur- 
thermore the  essential  statements  recur  repeatedly  in  other  es- 
says, frequently  almost  verbatim.  By  confining  oneself  largely  to 
these  essays,  by  selecting  the  crucial  statements,  by  showing  as 
briefly  as  possible  their  obvious  relations  one  to  another,  one  can 
reduce  Poe's  aesthetic  to  a  very  brief  and  a  perfectly  accurate 

1  W.  C.  Brownell,  American  Prose  Masters  (New  York,  1909). 

2  Norman  Foerster,  American  Criticism  (Boston  and  New  York,   1928).  I 
should  like,  if  I  had  time,  to  examine  Professor  Foerster's  essay  on  Poe  at 
length,  partly  because  of  the  similarities  and  the  differences  between  his  posi- 
tion and  my  own,  and  pardy  because  of  a  matter  largely  irrelevant  but  none 
the  less  astonishing— that  is,  Professor  Foerster's  view  of  the  nature  and  history 
of  music,  subjects  of  which  he  displays  an  ignorance  nothing  less  than  sweep- 

3  Edgar  Allan  Poe,  edited  by  Craig  and  Alterton  (New  York,  1935). 

statement.  In  doing  this,  I  shall  endeavor  in  every  case  to  inter- 
pret what  he  says  directly,  not  with  the  aid  of  other  writers  whose 
theories  may  have  influenced  him  and  by  aid  of  whose  theories 
one  may  conceivably  be  able  to  gloss  over  some  of  his  confusion; 
and  I  shall  endeavor  to  show  that  this  direct  approach  is  fully 
justified  by  his  own  artistic  practice. 

The  passages  which  I  shall  quote  have  all  been  quoted  many 
times  before;  I  shall  have  to  beg  indulgence  on  that  score  and 
ask  the  reader  to  examine  once  and  for  all  their  obvious  sig- 

Any  study  of  Poe  should  begin  with  a  statement  made  in  con- 
nection with  Elizabeth  Barretts  A  Drama  of  Exile.  He  says: 
"This  is  emphatically  the  thinking  age;  indeed  it  may  very  well 
be  questioned  whether  man  ever  substantially  thought  before."  4 
This  sentence  displays  an  ignorance  at  once  of  thought  and  of 
the  history  of  thought  so  comprehensive  as  to  preclude  the  pos- 
sibility of  our  surprise  at  any  further  disclosures.  It  helps  to  ex- 
plain, furthermore,  Poe's  extraordinary  inability  to  understand 
even  the  poetry*  of  ages  previous  to  his  own,  as  well  as  his  sub- 
servience in  matters  of  taste  to  the  vulgar  sentimentalism  which 
dominated  the  more  popular  poets  of  his  period,  such  poets  as 
Moore,  Hood,  and  Willis,  to  mention  no  others.  One  seldom  en- 
counters a  writer  so  thoroughly  at  the  mercy  of  contemporaneity. 
Professor  Foerster  writes  of  him:  "Of  this  sustaining  power  of  the 
past,  it  must  be  admitted,  Poe  himself  had  but  a  dim  understand- 
ing." And  he  quotes  Professor  Woodberry  (Life,  I,  132)  as  fol- 
lows: "He  had,  in  the  narrowest  sense,  a  contemporaneous  mind, 
the  instincts  of  the  journalist,  the  magazine  writer."  5 


One  cannot  better  introduce  the  question  of  Poe's  aesthetics  than 
by  his  well-known  remarks  about  Tennyson,  in  The  Poetic  Prin- 
ciple: "In  perfect  sincerity,  I  regard  him  as  the  noblest  poet  that 

*A11  quotations  in  this  essay  are  from  the  edition  of  Stedman  and  Wood- 
berry.  Quotations  from  the  criticism  only  are  given  footnotes.  This  quotation  is 
from  Vol.  I,  page  294,  of  the  three  volumes  of  criticism. 

5  Foerster,  op.  cit.,  pages  1  and  2. 


ever  lived.  ...  I  call  him  and  think  him,  the  noblest  of  poets, 
not  because  the  impressions  he  produces  are  at  all  times  the  most 
profound,  not  because  the  poetical  excitement  which  he  induces 
is  at  all  times  the  most  intense,  but  because  it  is,  at  all  times  the 
most  ethereal,— in  other  words,  the  most  elevating  and  the  most 
pure.  No  poet  is  so  little  of  the  earth,  earthy."  6  The  italics,  of 
course,  here  and  elsewhere  are  Poe's;  it  is  seldom  necessary  to  im- 
prove upon  Poe  in  this  respect.  Our  task  will  be  primarily  to  find 
out  what  this  passage  means.  I  believe  that  I  shall  be  able  to  show 
that  it  means  this:  that  the  poet  should  not  deal  with  human, 
that  is,  moral,  experience;  that  the  subject-matter  of  poetry  is  of 
an  order  essentially  supra-human;  that  the  poet  has  no  way 
of  understanding  his  subject-matter.  There  will  appear  certain 
qualifications  to  this  summary,  but  they  are  of  very  little  im- 

In  the  same  essay  Poe  states:  "I  hold  that  a  long  poem  does  not 
exist.  I  maintain  that  the  phrase,  'a  long  poem/  is  a  flat  contra- 
diction of  terms."  7  And  again,  thus  connecting  the  last  state- 
ment with  the  statement  regarding  Tennyson:  "A  poem  deserves 
its  title  only  inasmuch  as  it  elevates  by  exciting  the  soul.  .  .  . 
But  all  excitements  are,  through  a  psychal  necessity,  transient." 
"After  the  lapse  of  half  an  hour  at  the  utmost,  it  [the  excitementl 
flags— fails— a  revulsion  ensues— and  then  the  poem  is  in  effect, 
and  in  fact,  no  longer  such."  8  "This  great  work  [Paradise  Lost], 
in  fact,  is  to  be  regarded  as  poetical,  only  when,  losing  sight  of 
that  vital  requisite  of  all  works  of  Art,  Unity,  we  view  it  merely 
as  a  series  of  minor  poems.  If,  to  preserve  its  Unity,— its  totality 
of  effect  or  impression— we  read  it  (as  would  be  necessary)  at 
a  single  sitting,  the  result  is  but  a  constant  alternation  of  excite- 
ment and  depression.  ...  It  follows  from  all  this  that  the  ulti- 
mate, aggregate,  or  absolute  effect  of  even  the  best  epic  under 
the  sun  is  a  nullity:— and  this  is  precisely  the  fact."  9 

From  these  passages  it  follows:  first,  that  Poe's  very  concep- 
tion of  poetic  unity  is  one  of  mood,  or  emotion;  and  second,  that 

*  Stedman  and  Woodberry,  op.  cit.,  I,  27. 

7  Ibid.,  I,  3 

8  Ibid.,  I, 
•Ibid.,  1,4. 

he  regards  the  existence  of  mood  to  be  governed  by  narrow  me- 
chanical rules— in  other  words,  exaltation  of  spirit  is  merely  a 
form  of  nervous  excitement.  The  word  effect  is  used  here  as  else- 
where as  a  synonym  for  impression;  artistic  unity  is  described 
specifically  as  totality  of  effect.  There  appears  to  be  no  awareness 
whatever  of  that  comprehensive  act  of  the  spirit,  in  part  intel- 
lectual, whereby  we  understand  and  remember  Paradise  Lost 
as  a  whole,  seize  the  whole  intention  with  intellect  and  with 
memory,  and,  plunging  into  any  passage,  experience  that  passage 
in  relationship  to  the  whole,  an  act  in  which  the  emotional  ele- 
ment, since  it  is  involved  in  and  supported  by  the  rational  under- 
standing, rises  superior  to  mechanical  necessity. 

We  should  observe  further  that  in  these  passages  Poe  begins 
that  process  of  systematic  exclusion,  in  the  course  of  which  he 
eliminates  from  the  field  of  English  poetry  nearly  all  of  the 
greatest  acknowledged  masters,  reserving  the  field  very  largely 
to  Coleridge,  Tennyson,  Thomas  Moore,  himself,  and  R.  H. 
Home.  As  we  shall  see,  this  process  of  elimination  is  not  a  mere 
accident  of  temperament,  is  not  merely  a  series  of  accidents  of 
judgment,  but  is  the  necessary  corollary,  in  the  field  of  particular 
judgments,  of  the  general  theory  which  we  are  now  considering. 

Poe  continues:  "On  the  other  hand,  it  is  clear  that  a  poem  may 
be  improperly  brief.  Undue  brevity  degenerates  into  mere  epi- 
grammatism.  A  very  short  poem,  while  now  and  then  producing 
a  brilliant  or  vivid,  never  produces  a  profound  or  enduring  ef- 
fect." 10  He  cites  The  Indian  Serenade,  by  Shelley,  a  poem  of 
twenty-four  lines,  as  unduly  brief.  He  regarded  one  hundred 
lines  as  approximately  the  most  effective  number  for  a  poem; 
the  length  of  the  lines  themselves,  he  appears  never  to  have  con- 
sidered, though  if  we  compare  two  of  his  own  poems  of  nearly 
the  same  number  of  lines,  Ulalume  and  The  Raven,  the  former, 
in  fact  and  in  effect,  is  much  the  shorter. 

We  may  observe  in  the  preceding  quotation  once  more  the 
obliviousness  to  the  function  of  intellectual  content  in  poetry, 
and  an  act  of  exclusion  which  deals  very  shortly,  not  only  with 
the  epigrammatists,  but  also  with  every  sonneteer  in  the  lan- 

10  Ibid.,  I,  6. 

guage,  including  Shakespeare  and  Milton,  and  with  all  the  mas- 
ters of  the  short  lyric,  including  so  wide  a  diversity  of  poets  as 
Herbert,  Herrick,  Donne,  and  Landor. 

By  a  further  act  of  exclusion,  he  eliminates  the  great  satirical 
and  didactic  masters.  In  his  essay  on  Bryant,  he  says:  "A  satire 
is,  of  course,  no  poem."  n  And  in  The  Poetic  Principle:  "We  find 
it  [the  'epic  mania']  succeeded  by  a  heresy  too  palpably  false 
to  be  long  tolerated.  ...  I  allude  to  the  heresy  of  The  Didactic. 
It  has  long  been  assumed  that  the  end  of  all  poetry  is  Truth. 
Every  poem,  it  is  said,  should  inculcate  a  moral;  and  by  this 
moral  is  the  poetical  merit  of  the  work  to  be  adjudged.  We 
Americans,  especially,  have  patronized  this  happy  idea;  and  we 
Bostonians,  very  especially,  have  developed  it  in  full.  We  have 
taken  it  into  our  heads  to  write  a  poem  simply  for  the  poem's 
sake,  and  to  acknowledge  such  to  have  been  our  design  would 
be  to  confess  ourselves  radically  wanting  in  true  poetic  dignity 
and  force;  but  the  simple  fact  is,  that,  would  we  but  permit  our- 
selves to  look  into  our  own  souls,  we  should  immediately  there 
discover  that  under  the  sun  there  neither  exists  nor  can  exist  any 
work  more  thoroughly  dignified,  more  supremely  noble,  than 
this  very  poem— this  poem  per  se— this  poem  which  is  a  poem 
and  nothing  more— this  poem  written  solely  for  the  poem's 
sake."  12 

Now  if  Poe  had  merely  intended  to  exclude  some  of  the  un- 
satisfactory didactic  poetry,  let  us  say,  of  Longfellow  or  of  Low- 
ell, we  should  have  very  little  complaint  to  make;  however,  these 
poets  are  bad  not  because  they  are  didactic,  but  because  they 
write  badly,  and  because  their  didacticism  is  frequently  unsound 
in  conception,  and  because  the  lesson  which  they  endeavor  to 
teach  is  frequently  connected  only  arbitrarily  with  their  subjects. 
The  didactic  close  of  Byrant's  great  lyric,  To  a  Waterfowl,  on 
the  other  hand,  is  merely  an  explicit  statement,  and  a  fine  state- 
ment, of  the  idea  governing  the  poem,  an  idea  inherent,  but  in- 
sufficiently obvious,  in  what  has  gone  before,  and  it  is  foolish 
to  object  to  it;  and  in  the  poetry  of  Samuel  Johnson,  of  Dryden, 

u Ibid.,  I,  111. 
12  Ibid.,  I,  8. 

and  of  Pope,  as  in  Milton's  sonnets,  we  have  yet  another  form  of 
didacticism,  the  loss  of  which  would  leave  us  vastly  impover- 

Poe  appears  never  to  have  grasped  the  simple  and  traditional 
distinction  between  matter  (truth)  and  manner  (beauty);  he 
does  not  see  that  beauty  is  a  quality  of  style  instead  of  its  subject- 
matter,  that  it  is  merely  the  most  complete  communication  po§^, 
sible,  through  connotation  as  well  as  denotation,  of  the  poet's 
personal  realization  of  a  moral  (or  human)  truth,  whether  that 
truth  be  of  very  great  importance  or  very  little,  a  truth  that 
must  be  understood  primarily  in  conceptual  terms,  regardless  of 
whether  the  poem  ultimately  embodies  it  in  the  form  of  descrip- 
tion, of  narration,  or  of  exposition.  A  sound  attitude  toward  a 
major  problem,  communicated  with  adequacy  of  detail,  is  what 
we  ordinarily  mean  by  sublimity.  It  is  through  the  neglect  of 
these  fundamental  ideas  that  Poe  runs  into  difficulty. 

'With  as  deep  a  reverence  for  the  True  as  ever  inspired  the 
bosom  of  man/'  he  continues,  "I  would,  nevertheless,  limit  its 
modes  of  inculcation.  I  would  limit  to  enforce  them.  I  would 
not  enfeeble  them  by  dissipation.  The  demands  of  Truth  are  se- 
vere; she  has  no  sympathy  with  the  myrtles.  All  that  which  is  so 
indispensable  in  Song,  is  precisely  all  that  with  which  she  has 
nothing  whatever  to  do.  ...  In  enforcing  a  truth  ...  we  must 
be  in  that  mood  which,  as  nearly  as  possible,  is  the  exact  converse 
of  the  poetical."  14 

Poe  appears  oblivious  to  the  possibility  that  we  may  come  to  a 
truth  with  an  attitude  other  than  that  of  the  advocate;  that  we 
may,  in  brief,  contemplate,  with  Dante,  rather  than  enforce,  with 
Aquinas.  It  follows  that  he  would  not  recognize  the  more  com- 
plex procedure  of  contemplating  the  enforcement  of  truth,  the 
procedure  which  results,  for  example,  in  the  didacticism  of  Pope 
and  of  Dryden;  nor  yet  the  contemplation  of  the  need  of  the 

13  It  is  instructive  to  compare  To  a  Waterfowl  with  The  Chambered  Nautilus. 
Both  follow  the  same  rhetorical  formula,  but  in  Bryant's  poem  the  "moral"  is 
implicit  throughout;  in  the  poem  by  Holmes,  it  is  a  rhetorical  imposition.  The 
poem  by  Holmes  is  impressively  written,  notwithstanding;  but  it  illustrates  the 
more  vulgar  procedure. 

14  Stedman  and  Woodberry,  op.  cit.,  I,  9. 


enforcement  of  truth,  the  procedure  which  results  in  the  satirical 
poetry  of  the  same  writers;  nor  the  contemplation  of  a  discrep- 
ancy between  personal  experience  and  a  standard  truth,  a  pro- 
cedure which  results  in  much  of  the  poetry  of  Donne.  Yet  these 
are  all  major  human  experiences;  they  all  require  individual  per- 
ception and  moral  adjustment;  according  to  the  traditional  view, 
they  are  thus  legitimate  material  for  poetry. 

Poe  sees  truly  enough  that  the  enforcement  of  truth,  in  itself, 
does  not  constitute  poetry,  and  on  the  basis  of  that  elementary 
observation  he  falls  into  the  common  romantic  error,  which  may 
be  stated  briefly  as  follows:  truth  is  not  poetry;  truth  should 
therefore  be  eliminated  from  poetry,  in  the  interests  of  a  purer 
poetry.  He  would,  in  short,  advise  us  to  retain  the  attitude,  but 
to  discard  the  object  of  the  attitude.  The  correct  formula,  on  the 
other  hand,  is  this:  truth  is  not  poetry;  poetry  is  truth  and  some- 
thing more.  It  is  the  completeness  of  the  poetic  experience  which 
makes  it  valuable.  How  thoroughly  Poe  would  rob  us  of  all  sub- 
ject matter,  how  thoroughly  he  would  reduce  poetry,  from  its 
traditional  position,  at  least  when  ideally  considered,  as  the  act 
of  complete  comprehension,  to  a  position  of  triviality  and  of 
charlatanism,  we  shall  presently  see. 

Poe's  passion  for  exclusion,  and  the  certitude  that  he  has  no 
conception  of  moral  sublimity  in  poetry,  appear  very  clearly  in 
the  essay  on  Home's  Orion:  'We  shall  now  be  fully  understood. 
If,  with  Coleridge,  who,  however  erring  at  times,  was  precisely 
the  mind  fitted  to  decide  such  a  question  as  this— if,  with  him, 
we  reject  passion  from  the  true,  from  the  pure  poetry— if  we  re- 
ject even  passion—if  we  discard  as  feeble,  as  unworthy  of  the 
high  spirituality  of  the  theme  (which  has  its  origin  in  the  God- 
head)—if  we  dismiss  even  the  nearly  divine  emotion  of  human 
love,  that  emotion  which  merely  to  name  causes  the  pen  to 
tremble,— with  how  much  greater  reason  shall  we  dismiss  all 
else?"  16 

The  dismissal  appears  to  be  inclusive  enough,  by  this  time,  in 
all  conscience.  There  would  appear  to  be  some  confusion  in  Poe's 
mind  between  a  passionate  or  violent  style,  which  (in  spite  of  the 

"Ibid.,  I,  268. 


magnificence  of  King  Lear)  he  might  reasonably  regard  as  in- 
ferior to  a  style  more  serene,  regardless  of  subject,  as  if  the  poet 
were  to  rise  superior  to  his  passions  in  his  contemplation  of  them, 
and  passion  as  subject-matter.  It  is  his  fundamental  confusion  of 
matter  and  manner,  to  which  I  have  already  alluded. 

In  the  same  essay,  and  on  the  same  subject,  he  writes:  "Al- 
though we  argue,  for  example,  with  Coleridge,  that  poetry  and 
passion  are  discordant,  yet  we  are  willing  to  permit  Tennyson 
to  bring,  to  the  intense  passion  which  prompted  his  Locksley 
Hall,  the  aid  of  that  terseness  and  pungency  which  are  derivable 
from  rhythm  and  from  rhyme.  The  effect  he  produces,  however, 
is  purely  passionate,  and  not,  unless  in  detached  passages  of  this 
magnificent  philippic,  a  properly  poetic  effect.  His  Oenone,  on 
the  other  hand,  exalts  the  soul  not  into  passion,  but  into  a  con- 
ception of  pure  beauty,  which  in  its  elevation,  its  calm  and 
intense  rapture,  has  in  it  a  foreshadowing  of  the  future  and  spir- 
itual life,  and  as  far  transcends  earthly  passion  as  the  holy  radi- 
ance of  the  sun  does  the  glimmering  and  feeble  phosphorescence 
of  the  glow-wbrm.  His  Morte-d' Arthur  is  in  the  same  majestic 
vein.  The  Sensitive  Plant  of  Shelley  is  in  the  same  sublime  spirit 
.  .  .  Readers  do  exist  .  .  .  and  always  will  exist,  who,  to  hearts 
of  maddening  fervor,  unite  in  perfection,  the  sentiment  of  the 
beautiful— that  divine  sixth  sense  which  is  yet  so  faintly  under- 
stood, that  sense  which  phrenology  has  attempted  to  embody  in 
its  organ  of  ideality,™  that  sense  which  speaks  of  God  through 
His  purest,  if  not  His  sole  attribute,  which  proves,  and  which 
alone  proves  his  existence  ...  the  origin  of  poetry  lies  in  a 
thirst  for  a  wilder  beauty  than  earth  supplies.  .  .  .  Poetry  itself 
is  the  imperfect  effort  to  quench  this  immortal  thirst  by  novel 
combinations  of  beautiful  forms.  .  .  ."  17 

In  the  remarks  on  Oenone,  we  may  seem  at  first  glance  to  have 
the  hint  that  Poe  has  approached  the  concept  of  moral  sublimity, 
but  the  last  sentence  quoted  brings  us  back  abruptly  to  the  triv- 
ial; the  exaltation  is  not  a  moral  exaltation,  not  the  result  of 

16  See  Edward  Hungerford,  Poe  and  Phrenology,  American  Literature,  II, 
209-31  (Nov.,  1930). 

17  Stedman  and  Woodberry,  op.  cit.,  I,  267-8. 


the  exercise  of  the  intelligence  and  of  character,  but  is  the  result 
of  manipulation  and  of  trickery.  And  were  we  to  allow  ourselves 
the  luxury  of  worrying  about  Poe's  minor  obscurities,  his  use  of 
the  word  beautiful  in  the  last  sentence  would  complicate  our 
problem  inextricably:  that  is,  it  appears  that  we  achieve  the  beau- 
tiful by  new  combinations  of  items  which  are  already  beautiful; 
we  have  again  his  helpless  inability  to  separate  matter  from  man- 
ner, the  poem  from  its  subject. 

It  is  obvious,  then,  that  poetry  is  not,  for  Poe,  a  refined  and 
enriched  technique  of  moral  comprehension.  It  can  be  of  no 
aid  to  us  in  understanding  ourselves  or  in  ordering  our  lives,  for 
most  of  our  experience  is  irrelevant  to  it.  If,  indeed,  certain  hu- 
man experiences  are  admitted  as  legitimate  subjects,  they  are  ad- 
mitted, as  we  shall  see,  because  the  poet  cannot  write  without 
writing  about  something— even  the  most  irresponsible  use  of  lan- 
guage involves  an  inescapable  minimum  of  statement,  however 
incomplete  or  dismembered;  and  those  experiences  are  admitted 
which  seem  to  involve  the  minimum  of  complexity.  They  are 
admitted,  moreover,  not  as  something  valuable  in  themselves, 
not  as  something  to  be  understood,  but  as  ingredients  in  a  for- 
mula by  means  of  which  something  outside  our  experience  may 
be  suggested.  If  Poe  moves  us  most  to  indignation  when  defining 
his  exclusions,  he  perplexes  us  most  profoundly  when  he  en- 
deavors to  approximate  a  definition  of  what  he  would  include. 

He  writes  in  The  Poetic  Principle:  "An  immortal  instinct, 
deep  within  the  spirit  of  man,  is  thus,  plainly,  a  sense  of  the 
Beautiful.  .  .  .  This  thirst  belongs  to  the  immortality  of  man.  It 
is  at  once  a  consequence  and  an  indication  of  his  perennial  exist- 
ence. It  is  the  desire  of  the  moth  for  the  star.  It  is  no  mere  ap- 
preciation of  the  Beauty  before  us,  but  a  wild  effort  to  reach  the 
Beauty  above.  Inspired  by  an  ecstatic  Prescience  of  the  glories 
beyond  the  grave,  we  struggle  by  multiform  combinations  among 
the  things  and  thoughts  of  Time  to  attain  a  portion  of  that 
Loveliness  whose  very  elements,  perhaps,  appertain  to  eternity 
alone.  And  thus  when  by  Poetry— or  when  by  Music,  the  most 
entrancing  of  the  Poetic  moods— we  find  ourselves  melted  into 
tears,  we  weep  then,  not  as  the  Abbate  Gravia  supposes  through 


excess  of  pleasure,  but  through  a  certain  petulant,  impatient  sor- 
row at  our  inability  to  grasp  now,  wholly,  here  on  earth,  at  once 
and  forever,  those  divine  and  rapturous  joys,  of  which  through 
the  poem,  or  through  the  music,  we  attain  to  but  brief  and  inde- 
terminate glimpses."  18 

Briefly,  Poe  implies  something  like  this:  the  proper  subject- 
matter  of  poetry  is  Beauty,  but  since  true  Beauty  exists  only  in 
eternity,  the  poet  cannot  experience  it  and  is  deprived  of  his 
subject-matter;  by  manipulating  the  materials  of  our  present  life, 
we  may  suggest  that  Beauty  exists  elsewhere,  and  this  is  the  best 
that  we  can  do. 

This  is  not  the  same  thing  as  the  mysticism  of  such  a  writer 
as  Very,  for  Very  sought  to  define  what  he  considered  a  truth, 
the  experience  of  mystical  beatitude,  and  the  experience  of  hu- 
man longing  for  it;  the  former  experience,  though  inexpressible, 
he  strove  to  express  clearly;  the  latter  experience,  since  it  was 
clearly  expressible,  he  expressed  clearly.  Very,  moreover,  as  a 
Christian,  believed  in  moral  judgment,  in  poetry  and  out,  in  spite 
of  the  fact  thut  as  a  Calvinist  he  seems  to  have  believed  that  his 
moral  judgments  were  actually  dictated  by  God.  Nor  is  it  the 
same  thing  as  the  awareness  on  the  part  of  Emily  Dickinson  of 
the  abyss  between  the  human  and  the  supra-human  or  the  extra- 
human,  for  she  merely  defines  the  tragic  experience  of  confront- 
ing the  abyss  and  communicates  her  own  moral  adjustment  to 
the  experience,  or  at  least  she  does  no  more  than  this  in  her  better 
poems.  Both  poets  seek  to  understand  and  both  are  as  far  as  may 
be  successful;  Poe  seeks  a  justification  for  refusing  to  understand. 
Poe  is  no  more  a  mystic  than  a  moralist;  he  is  an  excited  senti- 

As  we  may  discover  from  other  passages,  especially  in  The 
Philosophy  of  Composition,  Poe  had  certain  definite  ideas  in  re- 
gard to  which  forms  of  human  experience  lent  themselves  best 
to  this  procedure,  and  also  in  regard'  to  the  rules  of  the  pro- 
cedure. Having  decided,  in  an  astonishing  passage  to  which  I 
shall  presently  return,  that  a  melancholy  tone  most  greatly  facili- 
tated his  purpose,  he  wrote:  "'Of  all  melancholy  topics,  what, 

"Ibid.,  10-11. 

according  to  the  universal  understanding  of  mankind  is  the 
most  melancholy?'  Death— was  the  obvious  reply.  'And  when/ 
I  said,  'is  this  most  melancholy  of  topics  most  poetical?'  From 
what  I  have  already  explained  at  some  length,  the  answer  here 
also  is  obvious— When  it  most  closely  allies  itself  to  Beauty;  the 
death,  then,  of  a  beautiful  woman  is,  unquestionably,  the  most 
poetical  topic  in  the  world.  .  .  .'  "  19  In  other  words,  we  are  not 
concerned  to  understand  human  experience;  we  are  seeking, 
rather,  the  isolated  elements,  or  fragments,  of  experience  which 
may  best  serve  as  the  ingredients  of  a  formula  for  the  production 
of  a  kind  of  emotional  delusion,  and  our  final  decision  in  the 
matter  is  determined  again  by  our  inability  to  distinguish  be- 
tween the  subject  and  the  style  of  poetry,  by  the  conviction  that 
beauty  is  the  subject  of  poetry. 

The  reader  should  note  carefully  what  this  means;  perhaps  he 
will  pardon  me  for  restating  it:  the  subject-matter  of  poetry, 
properly  considered,  is  by  definition  incomprehensible  and  un- 
attainable; the  poet,  in  dealing  with  something  else,  toward 
which  he  has  no  intellectual  or  moral  responsibilities  whatever 
("Unless  incidentally/'  says  Poe,  "poetry  has  no  concern  what- 
ever either  with  Duty  or  with  Truth"  20),  should  merely  en- 
deavor to  suggest  that  a  higher  meaning  exists— in  other  words, 
should  endeavor  to  suggest  the  presence  of  a  meaning  when  he 
is  aware  of  none.  The  poet  has  only  to  write  a  good  description 
of  something  physically  impressive,  with  an  air  of  mystery,  an 
air  of  meaning  concealed. 

An  air  of  mystery,  of  strangeness,  will  then  be  of  necessity,  not 
an  adjunct  of  poetic  style,  but  the  very  essence  of  poetic  style.  In 
Ligeia  there  occurs  the  well-known  passage  which  it  is  now 
necessary  to  quote:  "  'There  is  no  exquisite  beauty/  says  Bacon, 
Lord  Verulam,  speaking  truly  of  all  the  forms  and  genera  of 
beauty,  'without  some  strangeness  in  the  proportion.'  "  But  in 
Poe's  terms,  strangeness  and  beauty,  from  the  standpoint  of  the 
practical  poet,  are  identical.  Related  to  this  concept  is  his  concept 
of  originality,  which  I  shall  take  up  later  and  separately. 

18  Ibid.,  I,  39. 
80  Ibid.,  I,  12. 


Poe  is,  in  brief,  an  explicit  obscurantist.  Hawthorne,  in  his 
four  last  and  unfinished  romances,  gives  us  the  physical  embodi- 
ment of  allegory  without  the  meaning  to  be  embodied,  but  he 
appears  to  hope  for  a  meaning,  to  be,  somehow,  pathetically  and 
unsuccessfully  in  search  of  one.  Henry  James,  in  many  stories, 
as  in  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  to  choose  an  obvious  example,  gives 
us  a  sequence  of  facts  without  being  able  to  pass  judgment  upon 
them,  so  that  the  stories  remain  almost  as  inconclusive  as  Stock- 
ton's trivial  tour  de  force,  The  Lady  or  the  Tiger?  Both  men 
frequently  write  in  advance  of  their  understanding,  the  one  as  an 
allegorist,  the  other  as  a  novelist.  But  in  Poe,  obscurantism  has 
ceased  to  be  merely  an  accident  of  inadequate  understanding; 
it  has  become  the  explicit  aim  of  writing  and  has  begun  the  gen- 
eration of  a  method.  Poe's  aesthetic  is  an  aesthetic  of  obscurant- 
ism. We  have  that  willful  dislocation  of  feeling  from  understand- 
ing, which,  growing  out  of  the  uncertainty  regarding  the  nature 
of  moral  truth  in  general  and  its  identity  in  particular  situations 
which  produced  such  writers  as  Hawthorne  and  James,  was 
later  to  result  through  the  exploitation  of  special  techniques  in 
the  violent  aberrations  of  the  Experimental  School  of  the  twen- 
tieth century,  culminating  in  the  catastrophe  of  Hart  Crane.21 

Poe  speaks  a  great  deal  of  the  need  of  originality.  This  quality, 
as  he  understands  it,  appears  to  be  a  fairly  simple  mechanical 
device,  first,  for  fixing  the  attention,  and  second,  for  heightening 
the  effect  of  strangeness.  We  may  obtain  a  fair  idea  of  his  con- 
cept of  originality  of  theme  from  his  comment  on  a  poem  by 
Amelia  Welby,  quoted  in  the  series  of  brief  notes  entitled  Minor 
Contemporaries:  "The  subject  has  nothing  of  originality:— A  wid- 
ower muses  by  the  grave  of  his  wife.  Here  then  is  a  great  de- 
merit; for  originality  of  theme,  if  not  absolutely  first  sought, 
should  be  among  the  first.  Nothing  is  more  clear  than  this  prop- 
osition, although  denied  by  the  chlorine  critics  (the  grass-green). 
The  desire  of  the  new  is  an  element  of  the  soul.  The  most 
exquisite  pleasures  grow  dull  in  repetition.  A  strain  of  music 
enchants.  Heard  a  second  time,  it  pleases.  Heard  a  tenth,  it  does 

21  For  a  detailed  study  of  these  techniques,  see  pages  30  to  101  of  this  vol- 


not  displease.  We  hear  it  a  twentieth,  and  ask  ourselves  why  we 
admired.  At  the  fiftieth  it  produces  ennui,  at  the  hundredth  dis- 
gust."  » 

Now  I  do  not  know  what  music  most  delighted  Poe,  unless 
perchance  it  may  have  been  the  melodies  of  Thomas  Moore,  but 
if  I  may  be  permitted  to  use  exact  numbers  in  the  same  figura- 
tive sense  in  which  I  conceive  that  Poe  here  used  them,  I  am 
bound  to  say  that  my  own  experience  with  music  differs  pro- 
foundly. The  trouble  again  is  traceable  to  Poe's  failure  to  under- 
stand the  moral  basis  of  art,  to  his  view  of  art  as  a  kind  of 
stimulant,  ingeniously  concocted,  which  may,  if  one  is  lucky, 
raise  one  to  a  moment  of  divine  delusion.  A  Bach  fugue  or  a 
Byrd  mass  moves  us  not  primarily  because  of  any  originality  it 
may  display,  but  because  of  its  sublimity  as  I  have  already  de- 
fined the  term.  Rehearing  can  do  no  more  than  give  us  a  fuller 
and  more  secure  awareness  of  this  quality.  The  same  is  true  of 
Paradise  Lost.  Poe  fails  to  see  that  the  originality  of  a  poem  lies 
not  in  the  newness  of  the  general  theme— for  if  it  did,  the  possi- 
bilities of  poetry  would  have  been  exhausted  long  before  the 
time  of  Poe— but  in  the  quality  of  the  personal  intelligence,  as 
that  intelligence  appears  in  the  minutiae  of  style,  in  the  defining 
limits  of  thought  and  of  feeling,  brought  to  the  subject  by  the 
poet  who  writes  of  it.  The  originality,  from  Poe's  point  of  view, 
of  the  subjects  of  such  poems  as  The  Raven,  The  Sleeper,  and 
Ulalume  would  reside  in  the  fantastic  dramatic  and  scenic  effects 
by  means  of  which  the  subject  of  simple  regret  is  concealed, 
diffused,  and  rendered  ludicrous.  From  the  same  point  of  view, 
Rose  Aylmer  would  necessarily  be  lacking  in  originality. 

In  The  Philosophy  of  Composition  Poe  gives  us  a  hint  as  to  his 
conception  of  originality  of  style.  After  a  brief  discourse  on  origi- 
nality of  versification,  and  the  unaccountable  way  in  which  it  has 
been  neglected,  he  states  that  he  lays  no  claim  to  originality  as 
regards  the  meter  or  the  rhythm  of  The  Raven,  but  only  as  re- 
gards the  stanza:  "nothing  even  remotely  approaching  this  com- 
bination has  ever  been  attempted."  23  Again  we  see  Poe's  tend- 

22  Stedman  and  Woodberry,  op.  cit.,  Ill,  284. 
38  Ibid.,  1,42. 


ency  to  rely  upon  the  mechanically  startling,  in  preference  to  the 
inimitable.  This  fact,  coupled  with  his  extraordinary  theories  of 
meter,  which  I  shall  examine  separately,  bears  a  close  relation- 
ship to  the  clumsiness  and  insensitivity  of  his  verse.  Read  three 
times,  his  rhythms  disgust,  because  they  are  untrained  and  in- 
sensitive and  have  no  individual  life  within  their  surprising  me- 
chanical frames. 

Before  turning  to  the  principal  poems  for  a  brief  examination 
of  them,  we  should  observe  at  least  one  remark  on  the  subject  of 
melancholy.  In  The  Philosophy  of  Composition,  after  stating 
that,  in  planning  The  Raven,  he  had  decided  upon  Beauty  as  the 
province  of  the  poem,  Poe  writes  as  follows:  "Regarding,  then, 
Beauty  as  my  province,  my  next  question  referred  to  the  tone 
of  its  highest  manifestation— and  all  experience  has  shown  that 
this  tone  is  one  of  sadness.  Beauty,  of  whatever  kind,  in  its 
supreme  development,  invariably  excites  the  sensitive  soul  to 
tears.  Melancholy  is  thus  the  most  legitimate  of  all  the  poetical 


Now  if  the  reader  will  keep  in  mind  the  principles  that  we 
have  already  deduced;  namely,  that  Beauty  is  unattainable,  that 
the  poet  can  merely  suggest  its  existence,  that  this  suggestion 
depends  upon  the  ingenious  manipulation  of  the  least  obstructive 
elements  of  normal  experience— it  will  at  once  be  obvious  that 
Poe  is  here  suggesting  a  reversal  of  motivation.  That  is,  since 
Beauty  excites  to  tears  (let  us  assume  with  Poe,  for  the  moment, 
that  it  does),  if  we  begin  with  tears,  we  may  believe  ourselves 
moved  for  a  moment  by  Beauty.  This  interpretation  is  supported 
solidly  by  the  last  two  sentences  quoted,  particularly  when  we 
regard  their  order. 

The  Philosophy  of  Composition  thus  appears  after  all  to  be  a 
singularly  shocking  document.  Were  it  an  examination  of  the 
means  by  which  a  poet  might  communicate  a  comprehensible 
judgment,  were  it  a  plea  that  sucK  communication  be  carefully 
planned  in  advance,  we  could  do  no  less  than  approve.  But  it 
is  not  that;  it  is  rather  an  effort  to  establish  the  rules  for  a  species 
of  incantation,  of  witchcraft;  rules,  whereby,  through  the  ma- 

*  Ibid.,  I,  36. 

nipulation  of  certain  substances  in  certain  arbitrary  ways,  it  may 
be  possible  to  invoke,  more  or  less  accidentally,  something  that 
appears  more  or  less  to  be  a  divine  emanation.  It  is  not  surprising 
that  Poe  expressed  more  than  once  a  very  qualified  appreciation 
of  Milton. 

We  may  fairly  conclude  this  phase  of  the  discussion  by  a 
passage  from  The  Poetic  Principle,  a  passage  quoted  also  by  Miss 
Alterton :  "It  may  be,  indeed,  that  here  this  sublime  end  is,  now 
and  then,  attained  in  fact.  We  are  often  made  to  feel,  with  a 
shivering  delight,  that  from  an  earthly  harp  are  stricken  notes 
which  cannot  have  been  unfamiliar  to  the  angels.0  25  It  should 
now  be  clear  what  Poe  had  in  mind  when  he  referred  to  Tenny- 
son as  the  most  elevating  and  the  most  pure  of  the  poets;  what 
Tennyson  might  have  thought  of  the  attribution  is  beside  the 


Before  turning  to  the  poems  themselves,  we  should  examine 
very  briefly  Poe's  general  theory  of  meter,  as  it  appears  primarily 
in  The  Rationale  of  Verse.  And  before  doing  this  we  should 
recall  to  mind  in  very  general  terms  the  common  methods  of 
scansion.  They  are:  first,  the  classical,  in  which  the  measure  is 
based  upon  quantity,  or  length  of  syllable,  and  in  which  accent  is 
a  source  merely  of  variation  and  of  complication;  second,  the 
French,  or  syllabic,  in  which  the  measure  is  a  matter  wholly  of 
the  number  of  syllables  in  the  line,  and  in  which  the  primary 
source  of  variation  is  quantity,  if  the  language  be  one,  like 
French,  which  lacks  mechanical  stress;  third,  the  Anglo-Saxon, 
or  accentual,  in  which  the  measure  is  based  purely  upon  the 
number  of  accents,  variation  being  derived  from  every  other 
source  possible;  and  fourth,  the  English,  or  accentual-syllabic, 
which  resembles  the  classical  system  in  its  types  of  feet,  but  in 
which  the  foot  and  measure  are  determined  by  accent  instead  of 
by  quantity. 

Since  it  is  with  English  verse,  primarily,  that  we  are  dealing, 

"Ibid.,  I,  12. 


we  should  note  one  or  two  other  points  in  connection  with  it. 
First,  the  language  is  not  divided  into  accented  and  unaccented 
syllables;  within  certain  limits,  there  is  an  almost  infinite  varia- 
tion of  accent,  and  no  two  syllables  are  ever  accented  in  exactly 
the  same  way.  Consequently,  for  metrical  purposes,  a  syllable  is 
considered  accented  or  unaccented  only  in  relationship  to  the 
other  syllables  in  the  same  foot.  For  example,  let  us  take  Ben 
Jonson's  line: 

Drink  to/  me  on/ly  with/  thine  eyes. 

The  accentuation  of  the  first  foot  is  inverted;  in  each  of  the 
other  feet  the  accent  falls  on  the  second  syllable.  Yet  the  word 
with,  which  even  in  normal  prose  receives  more  accent  than  the 
last  syllable  of  only,  is  less  heavily  accented  than  the  word  thine; 
so  that  in  the  last  two  feet  we  have  a  mounting  series  of  four 
degrees  of  accent.  This  variety  of  accent  is  one  form  of  variation 
in  English  meter;  another  is  quantity;  another  is  the  normal  pro- 
cedure of  substitution. 

We  may  observe  the  obvious  opposition  of  quantity  to  accent 
in  the  first  foot,  a  normal  iambic  one,  of  this  line  from  Robert 

Nay,  barren  are  the  mountains,  and  spent  the  streams. 

The  first  syllable  of  the  foot,  Nay,  is  long  and  unaccented;  the 
second  and  final  syllable,  bar-,  is  short  and  accented.  On  the  other 
hand,  length  and  accent  may  be  brought  to  coincide;  or  there  may 
be  immeasurably  subtle  variations  between  the  two  extremes. 
These  sources  of  variation,  when  understood  and  mastered,  pro- 
vide the  fluid  sensitivity  to  be  found  in  the  best  English  verse, 
within  even  the  most  rigid  of  patterns. 

But  to  all  this  Poe  appears  oblivious.  He  says:  "Accented  syl- 
lables are  of  course  always  long/' 20  This  initial  confusion  is 
obviously  related  to  Poe's  preference  for  meters  dependent  upon 
a  heavy,  unvaried,  and  mechanical  beat.  He  makes  little  use  of 

*'  Ibid.,  I,  60. 

quantity  except  as  a  reinforcement  of  accent;  where  it  does  not 
reinforce  the  accent,  the  failure  is  an  accident  and  usually  results 
in  a  clumsy  variant  rather  than  a  pleasing  one. 

In  The  Rationale  of  Verse,  Poe  offers  a  new  system  for  mark- 
ing scansion,  based  in  part  upon  the  heresy  which  I  have  just 
mentioned,  in  part  upon  the  equally  gross  concept  that  all  syl- 
lables can  be  grouped  into  general  classes,  each  class  having  a 
fixed  and  recognizable  degree  of  accent.  He  is  even  so  rash  as  to 
attempt  the  scansion  of  Horace  on  this  basis,  and  to  state  that 
French  verse  is  without  music  because  the  language  is  without 
accent.  Poe  had  an  ear  for  only  the  crudest  of  distinctions. 


The  poems  on  which  Poe's  reputation  as  an  important  poet 
must  rest  are  the  following:  The  City  in  the  Sea,  The  Haunted 
Palace,  The  Conqueror  Worm,  Ulalume,  The  Raven,  and  The 
Sleeper.  These  are  the  ambitious  efforts;  the  others,  even  if  one 
grant  them  a  high  measure  of  success,  are  minor.  The  City  in  the 
Sea  is  generally,  and  I  believe  rightly,  regarded  as  Poe's  best  per- 
formance. After  the  first  five  lines,  which  are  bad  enough  to  have 
been  written  by  Kipling,  the  poem  displays  few  gross  lapses  and 
some  excellent  passages.  There  is  admirable  description,  and 
there  is  throughout  an  intense  feeling  of  meaning  withheld.  We 
have,  in  brief,  all  of  the  paraphernalia  of  allegory  except  the 
significance.  The  poem  falls  short  of  being  one  of  the  romantic 
masterpieces  of  obscure  emotionalism  chiefly  because  of  weak 
phrases:  it  remains  Poe's  most  startling  and  talented  failure. 

In  The  Haunted  Palace,  the  physical  material  has  allegorical 
significance  which  is  perfectly  definite.  The  palace  of  the  mon- 
arch Thought  is  the  head;  the  windows  are  the  eyes;  the  door  is 
the  mouth;  the  spirits  are  the  thoughts,  which  issue  as  words. 
This,  however,  is  not  the  real  explanation  of  the  poem,  for  the 
subject  is  the  change  from  sanity  to  insanity.  The  change  occurs 
in  the  fifth  stanza,  suddenly,  and  without  motivation:  we  have 
feeling  divorced  completely  from  understanding;  the  change  it- 
self is  mad,  for  it  is  inexplicable. 


Ulalume  contains  very  much  the  same  problems  as  the  other 
poems  not  yet  considered.  In  examining  this  poem,  we  must  con- 
fine ourselves  strictly  to  what  Poe  offered  us,  namely,  the  poem, 
and  refrain  from  biographical  entanglements,  which  are  both 
gratuitous  and  uncertain.  If  the  poem  is  not  self-sufficient,  it  is 
obscure;  and,  as  critics  of  art,  we  are  bound  to  rest  with  the  as- 
sumption that  the  obscurity  was  satisfactory  to  Poe. 

The  poem  opens  with  allusions  to  unidentified  places,  places 
with  dark  but  unexplained  histories:  Weir,  Auber,  ghoul-haunted 
woodlands;  we  have,  in  other  words,  a  good  deal  of  ready-made 
Gothic  mystery.  The  items  are  introduced  to  evoke  emotion  at 
small  cost:  they  are  familiar  romantic  devices,  but  they  are  none 
the  less  deliberately  obscure.  In  the  passage  opening  with  the 
alley  Titanic,  and  ending  with  Mount  Yaanek  and  the  Boreal 
Pole,  we  have  an  explicit  reference  to  a  period  of  violent  feeling 
in  the  history  of  the  protagonist:  the  cause  and  nature  of  the 
feeling  are  alike  unexplained  at  the  time,  and  even  the  loss  of 
Ulalume,  which  is  a  very  general  sort  of  datum,  is  an  inadequate 
account  of  feelings  so  grotesquely  violent.  In  lines  twenty  to 
twenty-nine,  there  are  dark  references  to  a  past  event,  references 
which  are  ultimately  cleared  up  when  we  learn  of  the  burial  of 
Ulalume,  but  which,  as  we  come  to  them,  have  the  effect  of 
gratuitous  emotionalizing.  Lines  thirty  to  forty  are  the  best  in  the 
poem:  they  hint  of  the  strangeness  of  the  nocturnal  turning  to- 
ward dawn,  and  then  describe  the  appearance  of  Astarte,  as  the 
rising  moon;  if  this  strangeness  has  any  spiritual  significance, 
however,  we  are  given  no  clue  to  it.  The  protagonist  wishes  to 
accept  Astarte  as  a  guide;  Psyche  distrusts  her;  they  argue  at 
length  but  darkly— darkly,  in  that  the  purpose  of  the  protagonist 
and  the  fears  of  Psyche  alike  are  not  given  us,  so  that  the  argu- 
ment is  like  one  in  a  dream.  Psyche  yields,  but  as  she  does  so, 
they  are  led  by  Astarte  to  the  door  of  the  tomb,  which  brings  the 
protagonist  up  shortly,  with  a  cold  realization  of  his  loss.  Lines 
ninety-five  to  one  hundred  and  four,  omitted  by  Griswold  and 
by  most  of  the  cheap  popular  editions,  but  important,  it  would 
seem,  to  the  poem,  state  the  possibility  that  Astarte  may  have 
been  conjured  up  to  prevent  their  further  irresponsible  wander- 

ing  in  the  haunted  woodlands  (which  I  take  to  represent  the 
loose  feelings  through  which  they  have  been  moving)  by  recall- 
ing them  to  a  sense  of  definite  tragedy. 

In  other  words,  the  subject  of  grief  is  employed  as  a  very  gen- 
eral excuse  for  a  good  deal  of  obscure  and  only  vaguely  related 
emotion.  This  subject  is  used  exactly  as  we  should  expect  to  find 
it  used  after  examining  Poe's  aesthetic  theory.  The  poem  is  as 
surely  an  excursion  into  the  incoherencies  of  dream-conscious- 
ness as  is  the  Larme  of  Rimbaud;  yet  it  lacks  wholly  the  fine 
surface  of  that  poem. 

In  The  Raven,  that  attenuated  exercise  for  elocutionists,  and 
in  The  Sleeper,  the  general  procedure  is  identical,  but  the  meter 
in  the  former  and  the  writing  in  both  are  so  thoroughly  bad  that 
other  considerations  appear  unnecessary.  The  Sleeper  is  a  kind 
of  Gothic  parody  of  Henry  King's  imperfect  but  none  the  less 
great  Exequy:  a  comparison  of  the  two  poems  will  show  the 
difference  between  moral  grandeur  and  the  sensationalism  of  a 
poet  devoid  of  moral  intelligence.  It  is  noteworthy  that  King  is 
commonly  and  justly  regarded  as  one  of  the  smaller  poets  of  his 

In  The  Conqueror  Worm,  the  desire  for  inexpensive  feeling 
has  led  to  a  piece  of  writing  that  is,  phrase  by  phrase,  solidly 


In  his  criticism  of  Hawthorne's  Tales,  Poe  outlines  his  theory 
of  the  short  story.  He  defends  the  tale,  as  preferable  to  the  novel, 
on  the  same  grounds  as  those  on  which  he  defends  the  short 
poem  in  preference  to  the  long.  He  states  the  necessity  of  careful 
planning  and  of  economy  of  means. 

He  says:  ".  .  .  having  conceived  with  deliberate  care,  a  cer- 
tain unique  or  single  effect  to  be  wrought  out,  he  [the  skillful 
literary  artist]  then  invents  such  incidents— he  then  combines 
such  events  as  may  best  aid  him  in  establishing  this  preconceived 
effect."  27  Now  the  word  effect,  here  as  elsewhere  in  Poe,  means 

27  Ibid.,  II,  31. 


impression,  or  mood;  it  is  a  word  that  connotes  emotion  purely 
and  simply.  So  that  we  see  the  story-teller,  like  the  poet,  inter- 
ested primarily  in  the  creation  of  an  emotion  for  its  own  sake, 
not  in  the  understanding  of  an  experience.  It  is  significant  in  this 
connection  that  most  of  his  heroes  are  mad  or  on  the  verge  of 
madness;  a  datum  which  settles  his  action  firmly  in  the  realm  of 
inexplicable  feeling  from  the  outset. 

Morella  begins  thus:  "With  a  feeling  of  deep  yet  most  singular 
affection  I  regarded  my  friend  Morella.  Thrown  by  accident  into 
her  society  many  years  ago,  my  soul,  from  our  first  meeting, 
burned  with  fires  it  had  never  before  known;  but  the  fires  were 
not  of  Eros,  and  bitter  and  tormenting  to  my  spirit  was  the 
gradual  conviction  that  I  could  in  no  manner  define  their  un- 
usual meaning  or  regulate  their  vague  intensity/*  And  Ligeia: 
"I  cannot,  for  my  soul,  remember  how,  when,  or  even  precisely 
where,  I  first  became  acquainted  with  the  Lady  Ligeia.  Long 
years  have  since  elapsed,  and  my  memory  is  feeble  through  much 
suffering."  The  Assignation:  "Ill-fated  and  mysterious  man!— be- 
wildered in  the  brilliancy  of  thine  own  imagination,  and  fallen 
in  the  flames  of  thine  own  youth/'  The  Tell-Tale  Heart:  "True! 
—nervous— very,  very  dreadfully  nervous  I  had  been  and  am!  but 
why  will  you  say  that  I  am*  mad?"  Berenice:  ".  .  .  it  is  wonder- 
ful what  a  stagnation  there  fell  upon  the  springs  of  my  life- 
wonderful  how  total  an  inversion  took  place  in  the  character  of 
my  commonest  thought/'  Eleanora:  "I  am  come  of  a  race  noted 
for  vigor  of  fancy  and  ardor  of  passion.  Men  have  called  me 
mad;  but  the  question  is  not  yet  settled,  whether  madness  is  or 
is  not  the  loftiest  intelligence— whether  much  that  is  glorious— 
whether  all  that  is  profound— does  not  spring  from  disease  of 
thought— from  moods  of  mind  exalted  at  the  expense  of  the 
general  intellect."  Roderick  Usher,  in  addition,  is  mad;  The 
Black  Cat  is  a  study  in  madness;  The  Masque  of  the  Red  Death 
is  a  study  in  hallucinatory  terror.  They  are  all  studies  in  hysteria; 
they  are  written  for  the  sake  of  the  hysteria. 

In  discussing  Hawthorne, .  however,  Poe  suggests  other  possi- 
bilities: "We  have  said  that  the  tale  has  a  point  of  superiority 

even  over  the  poem.  In  fact,  while  the  rhythm  of  this  latter  is  an 
essential  aid  in  the  development  of  the  poem's  highest  idea— the 
idea  of  the  Beautiful— the  artificialities  of  this  rhythm  are  an 
inseparable  bar  to  the  development  of  all  points  of  thought  or 
expression  which  have  their  basis  in  Truth.  But  Truth  is  often, 
and  in  very  great  degree,  the  aim  of  the  tale.  Some  of  the  finest 
tales  are  tales  of  ratiocination.  Thus  the  field  of  this  species  of 
composition,  if  not  in  so  elevated  a  region  on  the  mountain  of 
the  Mind,  is  a  tableland  of  far  vaster  extent  than  the  domain  of 
the  mere  poem.  Its  products  are  never  so  rich,  but  infinitely  more 
numerous,  and  infinitely  more  appreciable  by  the  mass  of  man- 
kind. The  writer  of  the  prose  tale,  in  short,  may  bring  to  his 
theme  a  vast  variety  of  modes  of  inflection  of  thought  and  ex- 
pression (the  ratiocinative,  for  example,  the  sarcastic,  or  the 
humorous)  which  are  not  only  antagonistic  to  the  nature  of  the 
poem,  but  absolutely  forbidden  by  one  of  its  most  peculiar  and 
indispensable  adjuncts;  we  allude,  of  course,  to  rhythm.  It  may 
be  added  here,  par  parenth£se,  that  the  author  who  aims  at  the 
purely  beautiful  in  a  prose  tale  is  laboring  at  a  great  disadvantage. 
For  Beauty  can  be  better  treated  in  the  poem.  Not  so  with  terror, 
or  passion,  or  horror,  or  a  multitude  of  other  such  points."  28 

Poe  speaks  in  this  passage,  not  only  of  the  tale  of  effect,  to 
which  allusion  has  already  been  made,  but  of  the  tale  of  ratio- 
cination, that  is,  of  the  detective  story,  such  as  The  Gold  Bug  or 
The  Murders  in  the  Rue  Morgue.  It  is  noteworthy  that  this  is  the 
only  example  which  he  gives  of  the  invasion  of  the  field  of  fiction 
by  Truth;  in  other  words,  his  primary  conception  of  intellectual 
activity  in  fiction  appears  to  be  in  the  contrivance  of  a  puzzle. 
Between  this  childish  view  of  intellectuality,  on  the  one  hand, 
and  the  unoriented  emotionalism  of  the  tale  of  effect  on  the 
other,  we  have  that  vast  and  solid  region  inhabited  by  the  major 
literary  figures  of  the  world,  the  region  in  which  human  experi- 
ence is  understood  in  moral  terms  and  emotion  is  the  result  of 
that  understanding,  or  is  seen  in  relationship  to  that  understand- 
ing and  so  judged.  This  region  appears  to  have  been  closed  to 

*  Ibid.,  II,  31. 

Poe;  if  we  except  the  highly  schematized  and  crudely  melodra- 
matic allegory  of  William  Wilson,  we  have  no  basis  for  believing 
that  he  ever  discovered  it. 


If  Poe's  chief  work  is  confined  to  the  communication  of  feel- 
ing, what  can  we  say  of  the  quality  of  that  communication?  Poe 
rests  his  case  for  art  on  taste,  and  though  we  may  disagree  with 
him,  yet  we  are  bound  to  examine  his  own  taste,  for  if  he  has  no 
taste,  he  has  nothing.  It  is  my  belief  that  he  has  little  or  none. 

Every  literary  critic  has  a  right  to  a  good  many  errors  of  judg- 
ment; or  at  least  every  critic  makes  a  good  many.  But  if  we 
survey  Poe's  critical  opinions  we  can  scarcely  fail  to  be  astonished 
by  them.  He  understood  little  or  nothing  that  was  written  before 
his  own  age,  and  though  he  was  not  unaware  of  the  virtues, 
apparently,  of  some  of  the  better  stylists  of  his  period,  as  for  ex- 
ample Coleridge,  he  at  one  time  or  another  praised  such  writers 
as  R.  H.  H&rne,  N.  P.  Willis,  Thomas  Hood,  and  Thomas 
Moore  as  highly  or  more  highly;  in  fact,  he  placed  Home  and 
Moore  among  the  greatest  geniuses  of  all  time.  He  praised  Bryant 
above  his  American  contemporaries,  but  he  based  his  praise  upon 
poems  which  did  not  deserve  it.  He  was  able  to  discover  nu- 
merous grammatical  errors  in  one  of  the  lesser  novels  of  Cooper, 
but  he  was  unable  to  avoid  making  such  errors  in  large  numbers 
in  his  own  prose;  and  the  faultless,  limpid,  and  unforgettable 
prose  of  the  seventh  chapter  of  The  Deerslayer,  the  profundity 
of  conception  of  The  Bravo,  the  characterization  of  Satanstoe 
and  The  Chainbearer,  were  as  far  beyond  his  powers  of  com- 
prehension as  beyond  his  powers  of  creation. 

If  we  neglect  for  a  moment  the  underlying  defect  in  all  of 
Poe's  work,  the  absence  of  theme,  and  scrutinize  carefully  the 
manner  in  which  he  communicates  feeling,  in  which  alone  he  is 
interested,  we  can  scarcely  avoid  the  observation  that  his  work  is 
compounded  almost  wholly  of  stereotyped  expressions,  most  of 
them  of  a  very  melodramatic  cast.  Now  one  cannot  object  to  a 
man  wholly  on  the  basis  of  stereotyped  expression.  There  is  a 


measure  of  stereotyped  expression,  apparently  inadvertent,  in 
many  poems  and  works  of  prose  which  sustain  themselves  not- 
withstanding by  virtue  of  a  fundamental  vigor  of  conception: 
W.  H.  Hudson  is  a  writer  of  prose  who  sins  extensively  in  this 
respect,  but  survives;  Henry  King  is  such  a  poet.  On  the  other 
hand,  the  most  finished  masters  of  style,  and  this  is  perhaps 
especially  true  of  the  poets,  have  all,  in  some  measure,  employed 
the  formulary  phrase  deliberately  to  achieve  various  but  precise 
results:  Crashaw,  Milton,  and  Blake  are  familiar  examples  of  the 
procedure.  Indeed,  if  we  imagine  a  very  precise  and  solid  sub- 
structure of  theme,  as  in  Crashaw's  paraphrase  of  the  Twenty- 
third  Psalm,  it  is  possible  to  see  how  a  passage  deliberately 
stereotyped  in  a  certain  measure,  yet  with  a  slight  but  precise  ad- 
mixture of  personal  perception,  may  at  once  define  a  traditional 
concept  and  the  relationship  of  that  concept  to  a  personal  per- 
ception, in  fact  the  entire  relationship  of  personal  to  traditional 
feeling— and  the  perception  of  such  a  relationship  is  in  itself  and 
as  a  whole  a  profoundly  personal  or  original  perception— in  a 
manner  more  successful  than  any  other  conceivable;  this  pro- 
cedure, however,  presupposes  a  theme,  a  sense  of  history,  or 
tradition,  and  a  recognition  of  the  poetic  art  as  a  technique  of 
judgment,  and  it  necessitates  incidentally  a  masterly  understand- 
ing and  control  of  meter.  Poe,  on  the  other  hand  endeavors  as  far 
as  may  be  to  escape  from  a  paraphrasable  theme;  he  recognizes 
no  obligation  to  understand  the  minimum  of  theme  from  which 
he  cannot  escape— in  fact,  he  seems  to  recognize  an  obligation 
not  to  understand  it;  his  historical  training  and  understanding 
amounted  nearly  to  nothing;  so  that  there  is  nothing  in  his  work 
either  to  justify  his  formulary  expression  and  to  give  it  content 
and  precision  of  meaning,  on  the  one  hand,  or,  on  the  other,  to 
give  his  work  as  a  whole  sufficient  force  and  substance  to  make 
us  forget  the  formulary  expression— we  merely  have  melodra- 
matic stereotypes  in  a  vacuum.  The  last  instrument  which,  if 
well  employed,  might  to  some  extent  have  alleviated  his  phras- 
ing, and  which  did,  in  fact,  alleviate  it  in  part  in  a  few  fragments 
to  which  I  shall  presently  allude,  the  instrument  of  meter,  he 
was  unable  to  control  except  occasionally  and  accidentally.  His 

theory  of  meter  was  false.  Whether  the  theory  arose  from  imper- 
ception  or  led  to  imperception  is  immaterial,  but  the  fact  remains 
that  his  meter  is  almost  invariably  clumsy  and  mechanical  in  a 
measure  perhaps  never  equalled  by  another  poet  who  has  en- 
joyed a  comparable  reputation.  His  favorite  stanzaic  and  struc- 
tural device,  the  device  of  mechanical  repetition,  is  perhaps 
equally  the  result  of  his  untrained  and  insensitive  taste  and  of 
his  feeling  no  responsibility  to  say  anything  accurately— when 
there  is  nothing  in  particular  to  be  said,  every  technique  is  a 
technique  of  diffusion,  for  a  technique  of  concise  definition 
would  reduce  the  poem  to  nothing. 

To  illustrate  the  weakness  of  detail  in  his  poems  and  stories  is 
an  easy  matter;  to  illustrate  the  extent  of  that  weakness  is  im- 
possible, for  his  work  is  composed  of  it.  In  his  poems,  one  may 
enumerate  the  following  passages  as  fairly  well  executed,  if  one 
grants  him  temporarily  his  fundamental  assumptions  about  art: 
Ulalume,  lines  thirty  to  thirty-eight,  provided  one  can  endure 
the  meter;  The  City  in  the  Sea,  lines  six  to  eleven,  lines  twenty- 
four  to  the  end;  To  One  in  Paradise,  the  first  stanza  and  perhaps 
the  last;  the  early  poem  To  Helen,  especially  the  first  three  or 
four  lines;  The  Spirits  of  the  Dead,  lines  five  to  ten.  Perhaps  the 
only  passage  of  his  prose  which  displays  comparable  ability  is 
the  opening  of  The  Assignation:  the  conception  is  merely  that  of 
the  typically  Byronic  man  of  mystery,  and  the  detail,  in  its  rough 
identity,  is  comparably  typical,  but  there  is  a  certain  life  in  the 
language,  especially  in  the  rhythm  of  the  language,  that  renders 
the  passage  memorable. 

For  the  rest,  we  encounter  prose  such  as  the  following:  "As  if 
in  the  superhuman  energy  of  his  utterance  there  had  been  found 
the  potency  of  a  spell,  the  huge  antique  panels  to  which  the 
speaker  pointed  threw  slowly  back,  upon  the  instant,  their  pon- 
derous and  ebony  jaws."  "It  was  a  voluptuous  scene,  that  mas- 
querade. But  first  let  me  tell  of  the  rooms  in  which  it  was  held. 
They  were  seven— an  imperial  suite."  "Where  were  the  souls  of 
the  haughty  family  of  the  bride,  when,  through  thirst  of  gold, 
they  permitted  to  pass  the  threshold  of  an  apartment  so  bedecked, 
a  maiden  and  a  daughter  so  beloved?"  "Morella's  erudition  was 


profound.  As  I  hope  to  live,  her  talents  were  of  no  common  order 
—her  powers  of  mind  were  gigantic/' 

We  are  met  on  every  page  of  his  poetry  with  resounding  pu- 
erilities such  as  "the  pallid  bust  of  Pallas/'  and  "the  viol,  the 
violet,  and  the  vine."  The  poetry,  in  fact,  is  composed  almost 
wholly  of  such  items  as  these: 

Ah,  broken  is  the  golden  bowl!— the  spirit  flown  forever! 
Let  the  hell  toll!  a  saintly  soul  floats  on  the  Stygian  river:— 
And,  Guy  de  Vere,  hast  thou  no  tear?— weep  now  or  never  more! 
See!  on  yon  drear  and  rigid  bier  low  lies  thy  love,  Lenore! 

At  midnight  in  the  month  of  June, 
I  stand  beneath  the  mystic  moon. 

For  alas!  alas!  with  me 

The  light  of  Life  is  o'er! 
No  more— no  more— no  more— 

(Such  language  holds  the  solemn  sea 
To  the  sands  upon  the  shore) 

Shall  bloom  the  thunder-blasted  tree, 
Or  the  stricken  eagle  soar! 

That  motley  drama— oh,  be  sure 

It  shall  not  be  forgot! 
With  its  Phantom  chased  forevermore, 

By  a  crowd  that  seize  it  not, 
Through  a  circle  that  ever  returneth  in 

To  the  self-same  spot, 
And  much  of  Madness,  and  more  of  Sin, 

And  horror  the  soul  of  the  plot. 

And  the  silken,  sad,  uncertain  rustling  of  each  purple  curtain 
Thrilled  me— filled  me  with  fantastic  terrors  never  felt  before. 

This  is  an  art  to  delight  the  soul  of  a  servant  girl;  it  is  a  matter 
for  astonishment  that  mature  men  can  be  found  to  take  this  kind 


of  thing  seriously.  It  is  small  wonder  that  the  claims  of  Chivers 
have  been  seriously  advanced  of  late  years  in  the  face  of  such  an 
achievement;  they  have  been  fairly  advanced,  for  Chivers  is 
nearly  as  admirable  a  poet.  If  one  is  in  need  of  a  standard,  one 
should  have  recourse  to  Bridges'  Eras,  to  Hardy's  During  Wind 
and  Rain,  or  to  Arnold's  Dover  Beach.  And  in  making  one's 
final  estimate  of  the  quality  of  Poe's  taste,  one  should  not  fail  to 
consider  the  style  of  his  critical  prose,  of  which  the  excerpts 
quoted  in  the  present  essay  are  fair,  and  indeed,  as  specimens  oF 
taste,  are  random  examples. 


On  what  grounds,  if  any,  can  we  then  defend  Poe?  We  can 
obviously  defend  his  taste  as  long  as  we  honestly  like  it.  The 
present  writer  is  willing  to  leave  it,  after  these  few  remarks,  to  its 
admirers.  As  to  his  critical  theory,  however,  and  the  structural 
defects  of  hi^  work,  it  appears  to  me  certain  that  the  difficulty 
which  I  have  raised  is  the  central  problem  in  Poe  criticism;  yet 
not  only  has  it  never  been  met,  but,  so  far  as  one  can  judge,  it 
has  scarcely  been  recognized. 

The  attempt  to  justify  Poe  on  the  basis  of  his  place  in  history 
can  arise  only  from  a  confusion  of  processes:  to  explain  a  man's 
place  in  history  is  not  the  same  thing  as  to  judge  his  value.  Poe 
was  largely  formed  by  the  same  influences  which  formed  other 
men,  both  better  and  worse,  Coleridge  as  well  as  Chivers;  his 
particular  nature  resulted  in  his  pushing  certain  essential  ro- 
mantic notions  very  nearly  as  far  as  they  could  go.  It  is  unlikely, 
on  the  other  hand,  that  the  course  of  romantic  literature  would 
have  been  very  different  except  (perhaps)  in  America,  had  Poe 
never  been  born;  in  any  event,  his  influence  could  only  have 
been  a  bad  one,  and  to  assert  that  he  exerted  an  influence  is  not 
to  praise  him.  His  clinical  value  resides  in  the  fact  that  as  a  speci- 
men of  late  romantic  theory  and  practice  he  is  at  once  extreme 
and  typical.  To  understand  the  nature  of  his  confusion  is  to  come 
nearer  to  an  understanding  not  only  of  his  American  contempo- 

raries,  but  of  French  Symbolism  and  of  American  Experimental- 
ism  as  well. 

There  are,  I  believe,  two  general  lines  of  argument  or  proce- 
dure that  may  be  used  more  or  less  in  support  of  Poe's  position; 
one  is  that  of  the  Alterton-Craig  Introduction,  the  other  (if  I 
may  cite  another  eminent  example)  is  that  of  Professor  Floyd 

The  argument  of  the  Introduction  appears  to  be  roughly  that 
Poe  is  an  intellectual  poet,  because:  first,  he  worked  out  in 
Eureka  a  theory  of  cosmic  harmony  and  unity;  second,  related  to 
this,  he  held  a  theory  of  the  harmony  and  unity  of  the  parts  of 
the  poem;  and  third,  he  devoted  a  certain  amount  of  rational 
effort  to  working  out  the  rules  by  which  this  harmony  and  unity 
could  be  attained. 

But  this  intellectuality,  if  that  is  the  name  for  it,  is  all  anterior 
to  the  poem,  not  in  the  poem;  it  resides  merely  in  the  rules  for 
the  practice  of  the  obscurantism  which  I  have  defined.  The  In- 
troduction cites  as  evidence  of  Poe's  recognition  of  the  intel- 
lectual element  in  poetry,  his  essay  on  Drake  and  Halleck,  yet 
the  intellectuality  in  question  here  is  plainly  of  the  sort  which  I 
have  just  described.  As  a  result,  Professor  Craig's  comparison  of 
Poe  to  Donne,  Dryden,  and  Aquinas,  is,  to  the  present  writer  at 
least,  profoundly  shocking. 

The  only  alternative  is  that  of  Professor  Stovall,  as  well  as  of 
a  good  many  others:  to  accept  Poe's  theory  of  Beauty  as  if  it  were 
clearly  understood  and  then  to  examine  minor  points  of  Poe 
criticism  with  lucidity  and  with  learning.  But  Poe's  theory  of 
Beauty  is  not  understood,  and  no  casual  allusion  to  Plato  will 
ever  clarify  it. 



Aspects  of  New  England  Mysticism 

But  thou  art  far  away  among  Time's  toys.  .  .  . 

IN  THE  PAST  TWO  DECADES  two  major  American  writers  have 
been  rediscovered  and  established  securely  in  their  rightful 
places  in  literary  history.  I  refer  to  Emily  Dickinson  and  to 
Herman  Melville.  I  am  proposing  the  establishment  of  a  third, 
who  is  no  doubt  the  least  of  the  three  but  who  is  nevertheless 
a  writer  of  impressive  qualities.1 

Jones  Very  was  born  at  Salem,  Massachusetts,  on  August  28th, 
1813,  and  died  there  on  May  8th,  1880.  In  1839  a  collection  of 
his  essays  and  poems,  selected  at  least  in  part  by  R.  W.  Emerson, 
was  published  at  Boston  by  Little  and  Brown,  in  the  third  year  of 
that  firm's  existence.  In  1883  an  incomplete  but  on  the  whole  a 
very  judicious  collection  of  his  poems  alone,  with  William  P. 
Andrews  as  editor  and  memorialist,  was  issued  at  Boston  by 
Houghton  Mifflin.  And  in  1886  the  same  firm  issued  a  "Com- 
plete and  Revised  Edition"  of  Poems  and  Essays,  by  Jones  Very, 
with  a  brief  but  admirable  biographical  sketch  by  James  Freeman 
Clarke,  and  a  wholly  superfluous  preface  by  C.  A.  Bartol.  This 
edition,  in  spite  of  its  containing  a  few  excellent  poems  lacking 
in  the  previous  edition,  and  in  spite  of  its  offering  a  few  prefer- 

should  mention  also  Frederick  Goddard  Tuckerman,  a  selection  of 
whose  poems  was  issued  in  1931  by  Knopf;  the  rediscover  er,  editor,  and 
memorialist  being  Mr.  Witter  Bynner.  Tuckerman  is  unquestionably  a  dis- 
tinguished poet:  he  is,  however,  romantic  in  the  essential  sense;  he  divorces 
feeling  from  motive  as  far  as  possible.  The  beautifully  executed  sonnet  be- 
ginning "An  upper  chamber  in  a  darkened  house"  is  a  perfect  example  of  the 
procedure:  a  man  is  imagined  in  a  tragic,  but  impenetrable,  setting,  to  serve 
as  the  symbol  of  a  feeling  with  which  he  has  no  connection  and  the  source  of 
which  we  are  not  given.  Tuckerman  is  much  like  the  Hawthorne  of  the  last 
romances,  except  that  he  writes  better.  [After  these  remarks  were  written,  Pro- 
fessor Thomas  H.  Johnson,  of  Yale,  announced  a  major  and  now  famous  dis- 
covery: that  of  Edward  Taylor.] 


able,  as  well  as  a  few  less  excellent,  variants,  may  have  been 
responsible  for  the  death  of  Very's  nascent  reputation,  for  it 
carries  an  enormous  amount  of  dead  material.  If  there  are  fur- 
ther editions,  they  have  not  fallen  into  my  hands.2  The  volume 
of  1886  contains  as  a  frontispiece  a  photograph  of  the  author, 
showing  a  long  and  narrow  New  England  face,  extremely  sensi- 
tive yet  equally  ascetic,  immaculate  alike  in  flesh  and  in  spirit, 
surely  the  face  of  a  saint,  and  a  face  worthy  of  one  of  the  finest 
of  poets. 

Very  was  about  ten  years  younger  than  Emerson  and  about 
four  years  older  than  Thoreau.  Me  preached  at  times  in  the  Uni- 
tarian pulpit;  he  is  commonly  listed  as  one  of  the  minor  Tran- 
scendentalists;  yet  both  facts  are  misleading.  He  was  a  mystic, 
primarily,  whose  theological  and  spiritual  affiliations  were  with 
the  earlier  Puritans  and  Quakers  rather  than  with  the  Unitarians 
or  with  the  friends  of  Emerson;  and  if  a  minor  writer,  he  was  at 
least  not  one  in  relationship  to  the  Transcendentalists. 

He  was  a  Unitarian  only  by  virtue  of  the  historical  connection 
between  the  Unitarian  and  Puritan  Churches  and  by  virtue  of 
the  wide  hospitality  of  the  Unitarians.  He  was  not  a  Transcen- 
dentalist  at  all,  but  a  Christian,  and  a  dogmatic  one;  his  only 
point  of  contact  with  Emerson  was  in  regard  to  the  surrender  of 
the  will,  that  is,  the  submission  of  oneself  to  the  direct  guidance 
of  the  Spirit.  He  differed  from  Emerson  in  that  Emerson  was  a 
pantheist  and  a  moral  relativist,  so  that  Emerson's  guiding  Spirit 
was,  in  effect,  instinct  and  personal  whim,  which,  in  his  terms, 
became  identical  with  the  Divine  Imperative,  but  which,  in  prac- 
tice, amounted  to  a  kind  of  benevolent  if  not  invariably  benefi- 
cent sentimentalism.  The  religious  experience  for  Emerson  was  a 
kind  of  good-natured  self-indulgence;  for  Very  it  was  a  sublime 
exaltation,  which  appears  to  have  endured  until  his  death.  Very 
was  beyond  question  a  saintly  man,  and  we  hesitate  to  doubt  a 

2  When  I  first  published  this  essay,  in  the  American  Review,  for  May,  1936, 
I  stated  that  I  had  not  seen  the  edition  of  1839.  I  was  promptly,  and,  consider- 
ing its  rarity,  munificently,  presented  with  a  copy  by  the  Reverend  Charles 
Morris  Addison,  of  Cambridge,  Mass.  A  comparison  of  the  three  texts  makes  it 
obvious  that  a  critical  edition  of  Very  is  much  to  be  desired. 


saint  when  he  states  that  he  is  a  mystic.  Very's  poems  bear  wit- 
ness unanswerably  that  he  had  the  experience  which  Emerson 
merely  recommends. 

Very's  spiritual  life  was  passed  on  that  minute  island  of  being, 
which  is  occupied  in  common  by  the  more  exalted  of  the  Friends 
and  of  the  Puritans.  Whereas  the  Friend  taught  the  importance 
of  the  submission  to  the  Divine  Will,  the  Puritan  taught  the 
inevitability  of  the  submission;  the  private  will,  either  way,  is 
stricken  from  the  conscious  life  of  the  intensely  devout;  and 
when  the  Holy  Spirit  bears  witness  to  the  beatitude  of  the  Pu- 
ritan, as  it  bore  witness  in  the  heart  of  Jonathan  Edwards,  that 
Puritan  lives  much  as  does  an  exalted  member  of  the  Society  of 
Friends.  The  reader  might  be  led  to  believe  that  Very's  connec- 
tions with  the  Friends  were  more  obvious  than  his  connections 
with  the  Puritans,  for  he  recommended  the  submission  of  the 
will  in  many  poems,  and  in  only  one— Justification  })y  Faith, 
which  appears  only  in  the  edition  of  1886— spoke  of  the  inevi- 
tability of  the  submission;  but  as  a  Unitarian,  his  background 
was  Puritan,  Snd  it  is  characteristic  of  the  Puritan,  as  of  every 
other  kind  of  determinist,  to  recommend  on  moral  grounds  that 
which  he  professes  to  believe  inevitable  as  a  matter  of  cosmology, 
to  confess  by  implication  to  a  belief  in  that  power  of  choice  which 
he  explicitly  denies;  indeed  the  familiar  and  daily  literature  of 
the  Puritans— the  literature  of  sermons,  memoirs,  and  similar 
documents— displays  repeatedly  the  same  recommendation  that 
we  find  in  Very,  and  the  novels  of  O.  W.  Holmes,  if  we  feel  that 
we  need  their  testimony,  bear  witness  to  the  recurrence  of  the 
recommendation  in  Calvinistic  conversation. 

The  perfect  dogmatic  definition  of  Very's  position  as  a  New 
England  mystic  occurs  in  the  sonnet  entitled  The  Hand  and 

The  hand  and  foot  that  stir  not,  they  shall  find 
Sooner  than  all  the  rightful  place  to  go: 
Now  in  their  motion  free  as  roving  wind, 
Though  first  no  snail  so  limited  and  slow; 
I  mark  them  full  of  labor  all  the  day, 

Each  active  motion  made  in  perfect  rest; 
They  cannot  from  their  path  mistaken  stray, 
Though  'tis  not  theirs,  yet  in  it  they  are  blest; 
The  bird  has  not  their  hidden  track  found  out, 
The  cunning  fox  though  full  of  art  he  he; 
It  is  the  way  unseen,  the  perfect  rout, 
Wherever  bound,  yet  thou  art  ever  free; 
The  path  of  Him,  whose  perfect  law  of  love 
Bids  spheres  and  atoms  in  just  order  move. 

The  first  two  lines  of  the  poem  imply  an  initial  choice,  and  thus 
might  be  considered  to  be  in  agreement  not  only  with  colloquial 
Calvinism,  but  also  with  the  Friends  and  with  Emerson.  The  last 
three  lines,  however,  are  deterministic,  and  put  the  orthodox 
stamp  on  the  statement;  the  twelfth  line  is  in  effect  a  paraphrase 
of  various  passages  to  be  found  in  certain  earlier  Puritan  theo- 
logians. Thus  John  Norton  wrote  in  1654:  "The  liberty  of  man, 
though  subordinate  to  God's  decree,  freely  willeth  the  very  same 
thing  and  no  other  than  that  which  it  would  have  willed  if  (upon 
a  supposition  of  impossibility)  there  had  been  no  decree. "  And 
again:  "Man  acts  freely  as  if  there  were  no  decree;  yet  as  in- 
fallibly as  if  there  were  no  liberty."  3  And  Isaac  Chauncey,  writ- 
ing in  1694,  says  that  God's  decree  "maintains  the  liberty  of  the 
creature's  will,  that  all  free  agents  act  as  freely  according  to  the 
decree  as  agents  of  necessity  do  act  necessarily."  4  It  is  curious 
to  observe  that  the  resolution  of  the  two  discordant  concepts  of 
free  choice  and  of  predestination,  as  it  appears  in  the  theologians, 
is  purely  verbal;  it  was  the  result  of  the  inability  of  the  Puritans 
to  establish  a  genuine  resolution  that  their  Church  declined;  yet 
in  the  poem,  while  one  is  reading  the  poem,  the  resolution  is 
experienced,  or  to  put  it  otherwise  the  conviction  felt  by  the  poet 
is  communicated.  I  should  not  like  to  leave  this  poem  without 
calling  attention  to  the  haunting  precision  with  which  feeling  as 

*The  Orthodox  Evangelist  by  John  Norton;  quoted  from  History  of  New 
England  Theology,  by  Frank  Hugh  Foster  (University  of  Chicago  Press, 
1909),  first  chapter. 

4  The  Doctrine  Which  Is  According  to  Godliness,  by  Isaac  Chauncey,  1694; 
from  Foster,  first  chapter. 


well  as  dogma  is  rendered;  lines  nine  to  twelve  are  exceptionally 

Very  saw  in  the  surrender  to  God  of  the  will  not  only  the 
means  of  salvation,  but  the  sole  act  of  the  will  acceptable  as  an 
act  of  devotion.  Similarly,  Edwards,  from  the  more  strictly  Cal- 
vinistic  point  of  view,  saw  in  the  doctrine  of  predestination  the 
only  doctrine  that  tended  adequately  to  the  glory  of  God:  "Hence 
these  doctrines  and  schemes  of  divinity  that  are  in  any  respect 
opposite  to  such  an  absolute  and  universal  dependence  upon 
God,  derogate  from  his  glory,  and  thwart  the  design  of  our  re- 
demption. And  such  are  those  schemes  that  .  .  .  own  an  entire 
dependence  upon  God  for  some  things,  but  not  for  others;  they 
own  that  we  depend  on  God  for  the  Gift  and  Acceptance  of  a 
Redeemer,  but  deny  so  absolute  a  dependence  on  him  for  the 
obtaining  an  interest  in  the  Redeemer.  .  .  .  They  own  a  de- 
pendence on  God  for  the  means  of  Grace,  but  not  so  absolutely 
for  the  success."  5 

Edwards  seems  to  be  guilty  of  the  heresy  which  he  is  attacking; 
that  is,  "trust  wi  a  covenant  of  works";  for  were  the  dependence 
absolute,  no  doctrine  could  thwart  our  redemption,  and  no  theo- 
logian need  come  to  aid  us.  It  was  in  the  same  spirit  that  Edwards 
brought  about  a  revival  in  the  Puritan  Church,  that  is,  induced 
large  numbers  of  sinners  to  repent,  by  preaching  in  language  of 
almost  unequalled  magnificence  and  terror  the  doctrine  of  pre- 
destination and  of  the  inability  to  repent.  It  was  in  the  same  spirit 
that  the  Mathers  took  it  upon  themselves  to  rid  New  England 
of  witches.  For  the  exercise  of  the  will,  the  sense  of  the  moral 
drama,  was  not  at  first  weakened  by  the  impact  of  Calvinistic 
dogma,  but  was  excited  by  the  new  exaltation  of  spirit,  and  as 
the  will  was  excited,  so  was  the  study  of  its  proper  use  neglected 
by  a  doctrine  which  denied  it  and  which  relegated  a  belief  in  the 
efficaciousness  of  good  works  to  the  category  of  sin,  and  this  dis- 
crepancy led  at  times  to  intense  and  mystical  piety  on  the  one 
hand,  and  frequently  to  brutal  bigotry  on  the  other,  the  two  often 
existing  in  a  single  man,  as  in  Cotton  Mather. 

6  God  Glorified  in  Man's  Redemption,  by  Jonathan  Edwards,   1731;  from 
Foster,  Chapter  II;  Edwards'  Works,  Dwight's  Edition,  Vol.  VII,  page  149. 


In  Emerson  the  exercise  of  the  will  is  as  active  as  ever,  and  his 
moral  judgments  are  frequently  made  with  force  and  with  accu- 
racy; but  his  central  doctrine  is  that  of  submission  to  emotion, 
which  for  the  pantheist  is  a  kind  of  divine  instigation:  an  inad- 
missible doctrine,  for  it  eliminates  at  a  stroke  both  choice  and 
the  values  that  serve  as  a  basis  for  choice,  it  substitutes  for  a 
doctrine  of  values  a  doctrine  of  equivalence,  thus  rendering  man 
an  automaton  and  paralyzing  all  genuine  action,  so  that  Emer- 
son's acceptable  acts  of  expression  are  accidental  poems  or  epi- 
grams drawing  their  only  nutriment  from  the  fringe  or  from 
beyond  the  fringe  of  his  doctrine.  To  understand  the  difference 
between  Very  and  Emerson  at  this  point,  we  are  forced  to  en- 
gage at  least  tentatively  in  that  most  precarious  of  pastimes,  psy- 
chological analysis.  Very  believed  that  he  had  surrended  himself 
to  God,  but  it  was  to  the  God  of  Christianity,  who  disapproved 
of  surrender  to  emotion  and  whose  moral  standards  had  been 
revealed;  so  that  Very,  if  we  assume  for  the  moment  that  there 
was  an  element  of  self-delusion  in  his  mysticism,  must  have 
engaged  in  a  good  deal  of  rapid,  efficient,  and  scarcely  conscious 
criticism  and  selection  of  his  own  impulses,  and  on  the  basis  of 
traditional  Christian  morality;  or  if  we  assume  that  Very's  faith 
in  his  experience  was  justified,  then  it  was  the  same  God  of 
Christianity  who  guided  him  in  fact,  and  presumably  on  the 
same  basis.  Emerson,  on  the  other  hand,  believed  that  flesh  and 
spirit  were  one,  that  the  universe  was  divine,  and  that  all  im- 
pulses were  of  divine  origin.  Emerson's  personal  acts,  like  those 
of  Very,  were  qualified  by  tradition,  for  he  was  the  descendent 
of  a  line  of  clergymen,  and  his  character  had  been  formed  by  the 
society  which  they  and  their  kind  had  formed,  so  that  his  im- 
pulses were  no  doubt  virtuous;  but  his  doctrine  abandoned  the 
last  connection  with  Christianity  and  the  last  support  for  per- 
sonal dignity,  and  the  difference,  though  it  does  not  appear  in  his 
life  as  a  man,  is  already  apparent  in  the  whimsical  facility  of 
feeling  to  be  discerned  equally  in  his  prose  and  in  his  verse,  a 
feeling  very  different  from  the  austere  purity  of  Very.  Emerson 
could  write  such  a  poem  as  Mithridates,  for  example,  with 
enough  rhetorical  vigor  to  make  it  an  important  part  of  our  lit- 


erary  heritage,  but  with  no  realization  of  its  implications;  it 
required  Rimbaud,  who  probably  never  heard  of  the  poem,  or 
Hart  Crane,  who  probably  derived  the  Emersonian  influence  in- 
directly, and  in  some  part  through  Emerson's  chief  disciple, 
Whitman,  to  realize  the  implications  of  such  an  attitude  in  life 
and  in  art. 

Emerson  was  the  most  influential  preacher  to  appear  in  Amer- 
ica after  Edwards,  for  the  lecture  platform  was  merely  the  ulti- 
mate step  in  the  secularization  of  the  pulpit,  a  step  that  was 
inevitable  after  Unitarianism  had  displaced  Calvinism,  and  Em- 
erson, moreover,  succeeded  in  focussing  upon  his  romantic  amor- 
alism a  national  religious  energy  which  had  been  generated  by 
a  doctrine  and  by  circumstances  now  equally  remote.  And  he  was 
the  most  widely  read  and  most  pungent  aphorist  to  appear  in 
America  since  that  other  limb  of  the  Devil,  Benjamin  Franklin. 
The  Church,  and  the  spirit  which  had  maintained  it,  were  in 
ruins;  and  the  acceptance  of  Emerson's  doctrine  produced  a  new 
spirit,  foreign  even  to  his  own,  or  at  least  acting  in  regions  be- 
yond his  comprehension  and  in  ways  that  would  surely  have 
troubled  him.6  In  Emerson's  day,  the  practical,  if  illogical,  Cal- 

'This  fact  has  been  pointed  out  by  H.  B.  Parkes  (Emerson,  Hound  and 
Horn  V-4),  a  writer  to  whom  I  am  more  deeply  indebted  than  I  can  indicate 
in  any  series  of  footnotes,  not  only  in  respect  to  Emerson,  but  in  respect  to 
other  aspects  of  American  thought.  Parkes  quotes  Emerson  as  saying:  "Success 
consists  in  close  appliance  to  the  laws  of  the  world  and  since  those  laws  are 
intellectual  and  moral,  an  intellectual  and  moral  obedience;"  and:  "Money 
...  is,  in  its  effects  and  laws,  as  beautiful  as  roses.  Property  keeps  the  accounts 
of  the  world,  and  is  always  moral  .  .  ."  and:  "An  eternal,  beneficent  necessity 
is  always  bringing  things  right."  As  Parkes  adds  of  this  notion,  "Among  the 
Yankee  farmers  of  Concord  it  had  a  little  plausibility.  But  its  effect  was  to 
justify  new  forces,  which  were  soon  to  destroy  the  society  in  which  Emerson 
lived."  As  an  example  of  the  justification  to  which  Parkes  refers,  one  might 
mention  that  curious  novel  by  Frank  Norris,  Tine  Octopus.  In  spite  of  being 
couched  in  an  illiterate  style  trie  book  has  extraordinary  force:  the  plot  displays 
a  series  of  related  personal  tragedies  resulting  from  the  impact  upon  individual 
lives  of  a  corrupt  financial  power.  The  financial  magnate  responsible  justifies 
his  actions  in  Emersonian  terms,  and  the  author's  representative  in  the  story, 
Presley,  enlarges  upon  this  justification  in  extensive  passages  that  might  have 
been  plagiarized  from  the  Essays.  Norris,  however,  was  so  little  a  literary 
scholar  that  one  is  inclined  to  believe  it  more  likely  that  he  got  these  passages 
from  the  philosophical  atmosphere  of  his  period  than  from  Emerson's  text. 
There  is  likewise  an  episode  in  Melville's  work  entided  The  Confidence  Man, 
which  appears  to  reflect  this  aspect  of  Emerson,  but  consciously  and  satirically: 


vinism,  which,  as  an  historical  fact,  had  enabled  Hawthorne  to 
produce  The  Scarlet  Letter,  existed  only  in  a  few  rapidly  crum- 
bling islands  of  culture,  such  as  that  to  which  we  owe  Emily 
Dickinson;  and  the  mystical  Puritanism  which  had  lived  in  Anne 
Hutchinson  and  in  Jonathan  Edwards  existed  nowhere  that  we 
can  determine  save  in  the  spirit  of  Jones  Very. 

That  Very  should  so  long  have  been  neglected,  that  he  should 
be  left,  a  century  after  the  production  of  most  of  his  best  poetry, 
to  the  best  defense  that  one,  like  myself,  at  every  turn  unsympa- 
thetic with  his  position,  is  able  to  offer,  is  one  of  the  anomalies 
of  literary  history.  Of  the  sincerity  of  his  profession,  we  can  hold 
no  doubt.  His  best  poems  are  as  convincing,  and  within  their 
limits  as  excellent,  as  are  the  poems  of  Blake,  or  Traherne,  or 
George  Herbert.  His  contemporaries,  those  who  regarded  him  not 
only  in  the  spirit,  but  in  the  flesh,  paid  his  sincerity  the  highest 
tribute  that  men  can  pay  to  that  of  any  man:  they  adjudged  him 
insane.  He  voluntarily  spent  a  short  time  under  observation,  but 
was  discharged.  "At  the  McLean  Asylum,"  says  Emerson,  "the 
patients  severally  thanked  him  when  he  came  away,  and  told  him 
that  he  had  been  of  great  service  to  them."  It  was  during  his 
stay  at  the  asylum  that  he  finished  his  three  essays  in  literary 
criticism,  which,  whatever  their  faults,  are  beautifully  written 
and  display  great  penetration  and  perfect  presence  of  mind. 

The  attitude  of  the  Transcendentalists  toward  Very  is  instruc- 
tive and  amusing,  and  it  proves  beyond  cavil  how  remote  he  was 
from  them.  In  respect  to  the  doctrine  of  the  submission  of  the 
will,  he  agreed  with  them  in  principle;  but  whereas  they  recom- 
mended the  submission,  he  practiced  it,  and  they  regarded  him 
with  amazement.  It  is  worthy  of  repetition  in  this  connection,  that 
had  Emerson  accomplished  the  particular  surrender  which,  as  a 
pantheist,  he  directly  or  indirectly  recommended,  he  would  have 
been  mad,  that  is,  an  automaton  guided  by  instinct;  that  the  sur- 
render recommended  by  Emerson  when  carried  no  farther  than 
it  was  commonly  carried  by  his  disciples,  that  is,  to  an  uncritical 
exaggeration  of  the  importance  of  temperament,  led  to  the  pas- 

the  episode  of  the  mystic,  Mark  Winsome,  and  of  his  disciple,  The  India 


toral  idiosyncrasies  of  Thoreau,  who  valued  a  packing  box  as 
highly  as  a  house  and  a  scrap  of  newspaper  as  highly  as  Homer, 
or  led  to  the  mild  idiocy  of  Alcott,  who  refused  to  eat  root  vegeta- 
bles because  they  grew  downward  instead  of  aspiring  upward; 
whereas  surrender  in  Very's  terms— and  we  who  have  never  prac- 
ticed Very's  surrender  may  reasonably  refrain  from  offering  any 
doubts  or  other  views  as  to  the  absolute  truth  of  the  terms— meant 
an  experience  of  a  wholly  different  order. 

James  Freeman  Clarke,  in  his  biographical  sketch  of  Very,  has 
thus  described  an  encounter  between  Very  and  Channing:  "I 
was  one  day  at  Dr.  Channing's  house,  when  he  had  just  received 
a  visit  from  Jones  Very.  Dr.  Channing,  like  Emerson,  was  always 
looking  for  any  symptoms  of  a  new  birth  of  spiritual  life  in  the 
land.  Having  heard  of  Mr.  Very,  he  invited  him  to  come  and 
see  him,  and  inquired  what  were  his  views  on  religious  subjects. 
Having  listened  attentively,  he  asked  him  whether  it  was  in  con- 
sequence of  his  invitation  or  in  obedience  to  the  Spirit  that  he 
came  to  Boston  that  morning.  Mr.  Very  answered,  1  was  directed 
to  accept  your  invitation/  Then  Dr.  Channing  said,  1  observed 
that  during  our  conversation  you  left  your  chair  and  went  while 
speaking  to  the  fireplace,  and  rested  your  arm  on  the  mantel.  Did 
you  do  that  of  your  own  accord,  or  in  obedience  to  the  Spirit?' 
Very  replied,  In  obedience  to  the  Spirit/  And  indeed,  if  it  has 
become  a  habit  of  the  soul  to  be  led  in  all  things,  great  and  small, 
why  not  in  this,  too?  Only,  I  suppose,  that  most  of  us  would  not 
think  it  worth  while  to  consult  the  Spirit  in  such  a  purely  auto- 
matic action  as  this/* 

That  the  gulf  between  Emerson  and  Very,  if  not  wide,  was 
yet  immeasurably  profound,  we  may  observe  from  one  of  Emer- 
son's notes:  "When  Jones  Very  was  in  Concord,  he  had  said  to 
me:  1  always  felt  when  I  heard  you  speak,  or  read  your  writ- 
ings, that  you  saw  the  truth  better  than  others;  yet  I  felt  that  your 
spirit  was  not  quite  right.  It  was  as  if  a  vein  of  colder  air  blew 
across  me/  He  seemed  to  expect  from  me— once  especially  in 
Walden  Wood— a  full  acknowledgment  of  his  mission,  and  a 
participation  in  the  same.  Seeing  this,  I  asked  him  if  he  did  not 

see  that  my  thoughts  and  my  position  were  constitutional,  and 
that  it  would  be  false  and  impossible  for  me  to  say  his  things  or 
try  to  occupy  his  ground  as  for  him  to  usurp  mine?  After  some 
time  and  full  explanation  he  conceded  this.  When  I  met  him  aft- 
erwards, one  evening  at  my  lecture  in  Boston,  I  invited  him  to 
go  home  to  Mr.  A's  with  me  to  sleep;  which  he  did.  He  slept  in 
the  room  adjoining  mine.  Early  next  day,  in  the  gray  dawn,  he 
came  into  my  room  and  talked  while  I  dressed.  He  said:  'When 
I  was  in  Concord  I  tried  to  say  you  were  also  right;  but  the  Spirit 
said  you  were  not  right.  It  is  just  as  if  I  should  say,  It  is  not  morn- 
ing, but  the  Morning  says  it  is  the  Morning/  " 

Surely  no  misunderstanding  could  have  been  more  complete: 
Emerson  tried  to  explain  to  Very  that  truth  is  relative,  and  Very 
tried  to  point  out  to  Emerson  that  truth  is  absolute.  Very  had 
been  subjected  to  an  overwhelming  experience,  and  he  was  cer- 
tain of  what  he  had  lived;  Emerson  had  had  no  such  experience, 
but  by  trusting  implicitly  to  the  whimsical  turns  of  his  thought 
he  had  arrived  at  certain  beliefs  regarding  it.  Emerson,  who  was 
interested  primarily  in  thought  about  the  mystical  experience, 
and  whose  attitude  toward  thought  was  self-indulgent,  could  not 
think  clearly  or  coherently;  and  Very,  whose  thought  was  pre- 
cise, if  limited,  whose  attitude  toward  thought  was  ascetic,  who 
regarded  thought  as  sin,  save  as  directed  by  the  Spirit,  accom- 
plished a  life  of  nearly  perfect  intuition. 

The  absolute  strangeness  of  Very  to  Emerson's  group  of  friends 
may  best  be  shown  by  another  passage  from  Emerson:  "When 
he  is  in  the  room  with  other  persons,  speech  stops,  as  if  there 
were  a  corpse  in  the  apartment/' 

In  the  poem  entitled  Yourself,  that  is,  addressed  to  the  reader, 
Very  indicates  his  awareness  of  the  difficulty  that  the  outsider  will 
have  in  understanding  the  nature  of  his  communion  with  the 

But  now  you  hear  us  talk  as  strangers,  met 
Above  the  room  wherein  you  lie  abed; 
A  word  perhaps  loud  spoken  you  may  get, 


Or  hear  our  feet  when  heavily  we  tread; 
But  he  who  speaks,  or  him  who's  spoken  to, 
Must  both  remain  as  strangers  still  to  you. 

We  may  accept  Very's  explanation  of  the  imperfect  audibility, 
since  he  has  every  appearance  of  deep  conviction;  yet  to  us  in  the 
lower  room,  he  none  the  less  remains  imperfectly  audible,  and 
if  our  life  is  to  be  passed  in  the  lower  room,  we  must  concern 
ourselves  primarily  with  its  conditions,  lest,  in  the  dark,  we  break 
our  heads  against  a  door  or  a  cabinet.  But  while  recognizing  that 
Very's  mystical  poetry  is  imperfectly  relevant  to  us,  we  may  get 
what  we  can  from  it,  and  since  that  which  we  can  obtain  is  fre- 
quently of  great  value,  we  can  scarcely  be  losers  in  the  relation- 

To  the  fine  anguish  which  Very  suffered  from  his  sense  of 
defilement  in  a  sinful  world,  and  to  the  strange  conflict  which 
must  have  lived  within  him  between  this  feeling— which,  indeed, 
is  the  only  approach  in  his  poems  to  a  state  of  mind  that  might 
be  suspected  of  a  quality  of  insanity— and  the  real  humility  which 
appears  in  many  of  his  poems,  we  may  obtain  a  clue  in  the  ex- 
traordinary poem  entitled  .Thy  Brother's  Blood: 

1  have  no  brother.  They  who  meet  me  now 

Offer  a  hand  with  their  own  wills  defiled, 

And,  while  they  wear  a  smooth  unwrinkled  brow, 

Know  not  that  Truth  can  never  be  beguiled. 

Go  wash  the  hand  that  still  betrays  thy  guilt;— 

Before  the  Spirit's  gaze  what  stain  can  hide? 

Abels  red  blood  upon  the  earth  is  spilt, 

And  by  thy  tongue  it  cannot  be  denied. 

I  hear  not  with  the  ear,— the  heart  doth  tell 

Its  secret  deeds  to  me  untold  before; 

Go,  all  its  hidden  plunder  quickly  sell, 

Then  shalt  thou  cleanse  thee  from  thy  brothers  gore, 

Then  will  I  take  thy  gift;— that  bloody  stain 

Shall  not  be  seen  upon  thy  hand  again. 


That  this  sonnet  embodies  a  personal  experience,  as  we  might 
surmise  from  its  tone  of  rapt  obsession,  and  is  not  an  idealized 
statement,  an  address  delivered  dramatically,  as  it  were,  by  the 
Divine  Spirit  to  fallen  man,  we  may  gather  from  Emerson,  who 
reports  of  Very's  conversation  as  follows:  "He  says  it  is  with  him  a 
day  of  hate:  that  he  discerns  the  bad  element  in  every  person 
whom  he  meets,  which  repels  him:  he  even  shrinks  a  little  to  give 
the  hand,  that  sign  of  receiving/* 7  The  word  wills  in  the  second 
line  represents  a  kind  of  theological  pun:  in  the  terminology  of 
traditional  Christianity,  it  would  mean  willful  sin;  in  the  strict 
sense  of  Very's  mysticism,  it  would  mean  the  exercise  of  the  -will. 
If  we  disregard  this  second  meaning,  the  poem  is  in  no  sense 
bound  to  Very's  theology,  but  is  comprehensible  in  traditional 
terms;  it  is  abnormal  not  in  its  thoughts  but  only  in  the  intense 
egocentricity  of  its  feeling.  This  feeling  might  or  might  not  verge 
on  insanity;  it  is,  however,  comprehensible  as  one  extreme  of  reli- 
gious experience;  and  it  is  here  rendered  with  a  purity,  direct- 
ness, and  intensity  but  seldom  equalled  in  English  devotional 

The  following  poem,  The  Garden,  is  restrained  and  precise  in 
its  imagery,  and  may  conceivably  find  few  admirers;  an  appre- 
ciation of  its  beauty  depends  upon  a  realization  of  the  mystical 
significance,  or  some  part  of  it,  back  of  the  description.  Though 
my  own  sympathy  with  the  author's  religious  views  is  largely  one 
of  a  kind  of  hypothetical  acquiescence,  the  poem  nevertheless 
seems  very  fine  to  me.  Regardless  of  the  intrinsic  merits  of  the 
piece,  however,  it  is  valuable  as  an  introduction  to  certain  other 
poems  in  which  the  rapt  contemplation  of  natural  landscape  is  in 
some  measure  offered  as  the  equivalent,  or  at  least  as  the  best 
available  poetic  substitute,  for  the  contemplation  of  God  achieved 
by  the  mystic. 

I  saw  the  spot  where  our  first  parents  dwelt; 
And  yet  it  wore  to  me  no  face  of  change. 

'This  passage  and  all  others  quoted  herein  from  Emerson  appear  in  his 
Journals  and  are  quoted  by  Andrews  in  his  memoir  of  1883. 

And  while  amid  its  fields  and  groves,  I  felt 

As  if  I  had  not  sinned,  nor  thought  it  strange; 

My  eye  seemed  lout  a  part  of  every  sight, 

My  ear  heard  music  in  each  sound  that  rose; 

Each  sense  forever  found  a  new  delight, 

Such  as  the  spirit's  vision  only  knows; 

Each  act  some  new  and  ever-varying  joy 

Did  by  my  Father's  love  for  me  prepare; 

To  dress  the  spot  my  ever  fresh  employ, 

And  in  the  glorious  whole  with  Him  to  share; 

No  more  without  the  flaming  gate  to  stray, 

No  more  for  sin's  dark  stain  the  debt  of  death  to  pay. 

The  next  poem,  The  Lost,  is  one  of  the  author's  four  or  five 
most  beautiful;  it  appears  to  go  close  to  the  heart  of  the  mystical 
experience,  and  in  spite  of  the  obscurity  resulting  is  unforget- 
table. The  use  of  natural  landscape  in  this  poem  and  in  one  or 
two  others  might  seem  to  lend  some  support  to  the  idea  that  Em- 
erson had  drawn  Very  toward  pantheism,  but  the  argument  is  a 
weak  one.  First  of  all,  mystical  poets  have  always  found  them- 
selves forced  to  employ  analogy  in  dealing  with  the  mystical  ex- 
perience: St.  John  of  the  Cross,  as  well  as  Crashaw  in  his  great 
poem  on  Saint  Theresa,  employed  the  analogy  of  sexual  love,  a 
common  analogy  in  Catholic  tradition.  Edwards,  in  telling  of  his 
religious  experience,  tells  of  the  intense  pleasure  that  he  received 
from  the  contemplation  of  natural  landscape:  he  exulted  in  this 
physical  beauty  as  the  workmanship  of  God,  but  the  feeling  is  so 
intense  that  he  appears  at  moments  to  see  God  in  his  works;  the 
attitude  is  something  between  the  attitude  of  Very  when  he 
writes  in  The  Garden,  "And  in  the  glorious  whole  with  Him  to 
share/'  and  Very  in  the  more  rapt  and  perhaps  more  confused 
condition  of  The  Lost,  in  which  God  and  His  Garden  are  scarcely 
distinguished.  The  mystical  experience  is  by  definition  incom- 
municable; to  the  lay  mind  it  may  appear  a  form  of  self-delusion. 
In  any  event,  the  inevitable  technique  of  approximating  it  by 
analogy,  if  one  is  to  deal  with  it  at  all,  leads  of  necessity  to  a  meas- 

ure  of  falsification  in  one  way  or  another;  this  procedure  is  part 
of  the  tradition  of  Christian  poetry,  and  the  fact  that  Very's 
analogy  led  him  in  the  direction  of  pantheistic  imagery  in  a  few 
poems  is  insufficient  to  convict  him  qf  pantheism,  in  the  lack  of 
additional  evidence,  and  in  the  face  of  the  vast  bulk  of  his  ex- 
plicitly Christian  statement. 

The  subject  of  the  poem  is  identity  with  God,  and  hence  with 
all  time  and  place,  of  the  divine  life  in  the  unchanging  present 
of  eternity;  or  rather,  the  subject  is  the  comparison  of  that  life 
with  the  life  of  man,  "the  lost."  The  nature  of  the  state  of  beati- 
tude is  of  necessity  communicated  but  very  imperfectly;  the  core 
of  the  poem  is  a  radiant  and  concentrated  cloud  of  obscurity. 
The  longing  for  beatitude,  however,  is  a  normal  and  comprehen- 
sible human  experience,  and  though  it  is  communicated  largely 
by  indirect  means  in  this  poem,  it  is  communicated  with  extraor- 
dinary power.  The  obscurity,  the  imperfection,  of  the  poem  is 
as  slight  as  the  treatment  of  the  mystical  theme  permits;  few 
mystical  poems,  on  the  other  hand,  have  expressed  as  wide  a 
margin  of  comprehensible  experience,  and  few  have  been  written 
with  such  luminous  directness  and  power.  The  mysterious  and 
subdued  longing  expressed  in  the  poem  culminates,  perhaps  in 
lines  five  and  six,  and  again  in  lines  nine  and  ten,  and  the  reader 
may  possibly  work  his  way  into  the  poem  best  by  concentrating 
for  a  moment  on  these  lines: 

The  fairest  day  that  ever  yet  has  shone, 
Will  he  when  thou  the  day  within  shalt  see; 
The  fairest  rose  that  ever  yet  has  hlown, 
When  thou  the  flower  thou  lookest  on  shalt  he; 
But  thou  art  far  away  among  Times  toys; 
Thyself  the  day  thou  lookest  for  in  them, 
Thyself  the  flower  that  now  thine  eye  enjoys, 
But  wilted  now  thou  hangst  upon  thy  stem. 
The  hird  thou  hearest  on  the  hudding  tree, 
Thou  hast  made  sing  with  thy  forgotten  voice; 
But  when  it  swells  again  to  melody, 

The  song  is  thine  in  which  thou  wilt  rejoice; 
And  thou  new  risen  midst  these  wonders  live 
That  now  to  them  dost  all  thy  substance  give. 

The  same  subject  and  imagery  recur  in  the  poem  entitled  Today, 
a  lovely  but  less  finished  performance: 

I  live  hut  in  the  present,— where  art  thou? 
Hast  thou  a  home  in  some  past,  future  year? 
I  call  to  thee  from  every  leafy  bough, 
But  thou  art  far  away  and  canst  not  hear. 

Each  flower  lifts  up  its  red  or  yellow  head, 
And  nods  to  thee  as  thou  art  passing  by: 
Hurry  not  on,  but  stay  thine  anxious  tread, 
And  thou  shalt  live  with  me,  for  there  am  I. 

The  stream  that  murmurs  by  thee,— heed  its  voice, 
Nor  stop  \hine  ear;  'tis  I  that  bid  it  flow; 
And  thou  with  its  glad  waters  shalt  rejoice. 
And  of  the  life  I  live  within  them  know. 

And  hill,  and  grove,  and  flowers,  and  running  stream, 
When  thou  dost  live  with  them  shall  look  more  fair; 
And  thou  awake  as  from  a  cheating  dream, 
The  life  today  with  me  and  mine  to  share. 

The  New  Man,  a  companion-piece  to  The  Lost,  which  appears 
only  in  the  edition  of  1886,  like  The  Hand  and  Foot,  the  first 
poem  quoted  in  this  essay,  treats  the  converse  of  this  theme,  or 
the  experience  of  achieving  salvation : 

The  hands  must  touch  and  handle  many  things, 
The  eyes  long  waste  their  glances  all  in  vain; 
The  feet  course  still  in  idle,  mazy  rings, 
Ere  man  himself,  the  lost,  shall  back  regain 
The  hand  that  ever  moves,  the  eyes  that  see, 


While  day  holds  out  his  shining  lamp  on  high, 

And,  strait  as  flies  the  honey-seeking  bee, 

Direct  the  feet  to  unseen  flowers  they  spy; 

These,  when  they  come,  the  man  revealed  from  heaven, 

Shall  labor  all  the  day  in  quiet  rest 

And  flnd  at  eve  the  covert  duly  given, 

Where  with  the  bird  they  find  sweet  sleep  and  rest, 

That  shall  their  wasted  strength  to  health  restore, 

And  bid  them  seek  with  morn  the  hills  and  fields  once  more. 

Much  of  Very's  Nature  poetry,  especially  of  his  later  work,  is 
merely  dull;  the  best  of  it  resembles  that  of  Blake,  but  is  less 
excellent.  Nature,  as  in  Blake,  is  seen  through  a  daze  of  beatitude 
and  with  only  occasional  clarity  of  outline.  Nevertheless,  there 
are  lovely  passages.  The  following  lines  are  from  the  sonnet  en- 
titled To  the  Pure  All  Things  Are  Pure: 

Nature  shall  seem  another  house  of  thine, 
When  he  who  formed  thee  bids  thee  live  and  play, 
And  in  thy  rambles,  een  the  creeping  vine 
Shall  keep  with  thee  a  jocund  holiday. 

This  passage  is  from  The  Song: 

1  plunge  me  in  the  rivers  cooling  wave, 

Or  on  the  embroidered  bank  admiring  lean, 

Now  some  endangered  insect  life  to  save, 

Now  watch  the  pictured  flowers  and  grasses  green; 

Forever  playing  where  a  boy  I  played, 

By  hill  and  grove,  by  field  and  stream  delayed. 

Equally  lovely  are  The  Wild  Rose  of  Plymouth,  The  Fair  Morn- 
ing (as  it  appears  in  the  edition  of  1886),  and  The  Lament  of 
the  Flowers  (which  appears  only  in  the  edition  of  1886),  a  curi- 
ously haunting  poem,  too  long  to  quote  in  full  and  too  elusive  to 
quote  in  part.  In  Autumn  Flowers,  the  natural  description  be- 
comes a  firm  moral  allegory;  the  poem  is  nearly  one  of  the  best. 


Yet  was  there  not  some  excuse  for  t4ie  disturbed  clergymen 
of  New  England,  who,  when  Very  called  upon  them  in  their 
studies  and  exhorted  them  to  a  more  devout  life,  believed  him  a 
madman?  The  clergymen  did  not  represent  civilization  and  the 
moral  life,  exactly,  but  they  represented  what  was  left  of  civiliza- 
tion and  the  moral  life  in  New  England— they  were  at  least  the 
ruined  dust  of  tradition— and  Very,  though  a  living  spirit,  was 
primarily  representative  of  something  else.  He  was  not  mad,  but 
he  existed  in  a  state  resembling  madness  from  a  strictly  moralis- 
tic point  of  view;  he  denied  the  existence,  so  far  as  practical  be- 
havior was  concerned,  of  the  whole  world  of  judgment  and  of 
choice;  he  was  like  Parmenides,  who,  having  proven  the  uni- 
verse by  logic  to  be  a  perfect  and  motionless  sphere,  and  having 
observed  about  him  a  universe  which  did  not  conform  to  the 
definition,  pronounced  the  latter  an  illusion  and  turned  his  back 
upon  it  forever. 

But  in  that  illusion  we  live  from  day  to  day;  and  in  that  life 
of  illusion  we  govern  ourselves  by  judgment  and  by  choice;  and 
should  we  deny  or  lose  control  of  these,  the  illusion  would  be- 
come a  horror.  A  Very,  a  Traherne,  or  a  Blake,  is  a  luxury  which 
we  can  well  afford  so  long  as  he  refrains  from  making  converts. 
Should  he  convert  us  all,  he  would  certainly  be  destroyed  along 
with  us,  or  so,  to  us,  in  our  darkness,  it  must  needs  appear.  But 
secure  and  unimpeded  in  our  universe,  which  he  deplores,  he 
expresses  one  limited  aspect  of  our  spiritual  life,  an  aspect  which, 
to  express  well,  he  must  live  fully.  The  Roman  Church  has  can- 
nonized  individual  mystics,  but  has  suppressed  or  excommuni- 
cated the  mystical  sects. 

But  Very  seldom  preached,  like  Emerson;  rather,  he  gave  us 
his  life:  he  is  a  mystic,  not  a  sectary  and  a  reformer.  It  is  true 
that  he  argued  with  Emerson  in  the  woods  and  with  the  clergy- 
men in  their  studies,  but  the  efforts  were  rare,  brief,  and  private; 
he  had  no  access,  such  as  Emerson  had,  to  the  general  public,  and 
he  sought  for  none.  His  poems  sometimes  employ  the  rhetorical 
forms  of  exhortation,  but  the  substance  is  the  substance  of  per- 
sonal experience:  he  expressed  his  own  experience  of  beatitude, 
or  his  longing  for  the  experience,  or  his  pity  for  us,  the  lost,  the 


dead.  Emerson,  if  he  was  to  concern  himself  with  mysticism  at  all, 
could  do  no  other  than  reform,  for  he  had  no  mystical  life  to  give : 
if  we  are  to  judge  him  by  his  writing,  he  never  experienced  that 
which  he  recommended,  and  judged  in  his  own  terms  he  was  a 
failure.  His  poetry  deals  not  with  the  experience,  but  Math  his 
own  theory  of  the  experience;  it  is  not  mystical  poetry  but  gnomic 
or  didactic,  poetry,  and  as  the  ideas  expounded  will  not  stand 
inspection,  the  poetry  is  ultimately  poor  in  spite  of  a  good  deal  of 
vigorous  phrasing.  Or  to  put  it  another  way,  Very  speaks  with 
the  authority  of  experience— and  this  holds  true,  even  if  we  feel 
less  certain  than  Very  as  to  the  origin  of  the  experience— whereas 
Emerson  claims  to  speak  with  the  authority  of  thought,  but  he 
lacks  that  authority. 

Yet  the  measure  of  Emerson's  failure  may  seem  at  times  the 
measure  of  the  superiority  of  at  least  a  little  of  his  poetry  to  the 
work  of  Very,  at  any  rate  to  those  of  us  who  inhabit  the  lower 
room,  the  chamber  of  illusions,  and  endeavor  to  keep  it  in  order 
that  the  mystic  on  the  floor  above  us  may  suffer  as  little  incon- 
venient disturbance  as  possible.  For  Emerson's  failure  drove  him 
to  examine  at  odd  moments  the  broken  shards  and  tablets  buried 
in  his  character  from  an  earlier  culture.  He  was  by  accident  and 
on  certain  occasions  a  moral  poet,  and  he  was  by  natural  talent 
a  poet  of  a  good  deal  of  power.  When  we  come  from  the  more 
purely  mystical  works  of  Very  to  The  Concord  Hymn,  or  to 
Days,  we  may  feel  that  we  are  entering  a  world  of  three  dimen- 
sions, of  solid  obstacles,  and  of  comprehensible  nobility. 

But  we  have  not  done  with  Very  so  easily.  Emerson  at  the  core 
is  a  fraud  and  a  sentimentalist,  and  his  fraudulence  impinges  at 
least  lightly  upon  everything  he  wrote:  when  it  disappears  from 
the  subject,  it  lingers  in  the  tone;  even  when  he  brings  his  very 
real  talent  to  bear  upon  a  thoroughly  sound  subject,  he  does  so 
with  a  manner  at  once  condescending  and  casual,  a  manner  of 
which  the  justification,  such  as  it  is,  may  be  found  in  his  essays, 
but  of  which  the  consequence  is  a  subtle  degradation  of  the 
poetic  art.  Very  at  the  core  is  a  saint;  though  he  is  no  more  often 
successful  than  is  many  another  poet,  yet  he  invariably  gives  the 
impression  of  a  conscientious  effort  to  render  exactly  that  which 


he  has  to  say.  Very  believed  that  his  poems,  like  his  actions,  were 
dictated  by  a  higher  power;  but,  as  I  have  already  shown,  the 
power  was  not  the  same  as  that  to  which  Emerson  owed  alle- 
giance. Very's  poetry,  like  his  life,  was  founded  on  a  belief  in 
Absolute  Truth;  and  either  Very  (without  perhaps  wholly  re- 
alizing it),  or  the  Power  that  directed  him,  displayed  the  con- 
science, the  seriousness,  of  the  artist. 

When  he  brings  his  character  to  bear  upon  matters  that  we  can 
understand,  we  find  ourselves,  for  all  our  doubts,  in  the  presence 
of  one  of  the  finest  devotional  poets  in  English.  The  following 
poem,  The  Created,  is  probably  the  best  single  poem  that  Very 

There  is  naught  for  thee  by  thy  haste  to  gain; 

'Tis  not  the  swift  with  me  that  win  the  race; 

Through  long  endurance  of  delaying  pain, 

Thine  opened  eye  shall  see  thy  Fathers  face; 

Nor  here  nor  there,  where  now  thy  feet  would  turn, 

Thou  ibilt  find  Him  who  ever  waits  for  thee; 

But  let  obedience  quench  desires  that  burn, 

And  where  thou  art  thy  Father  too  will  be. 

Behold!  as  day  by  day  the  spirit  grows, 

Thou  seest  by  inward  light  things  hid  before; 

Till  what  God  is,  thyself.  His  image  shows; 

And  thou  wilt  wear  the  robe  that  first  thou  wore, 

When  bright  with  radiance  from  his  forming  hand, 

He  saw  the  lord  of  all  His  creatures  stand. 

We  have  here  perfection  of  structure,  perfection  and  power  of 
phrase,  great  moral  scope,  at  least  by  way  of  generality  of  im- 
plication, and  sublimity  of  conception.  The  intention  of  this 
poem  must  have  been  purely  Calvinistic;  yet  the  second  quatrain, 
in  which  the  Calvinism  is  most  explicit,  is  stated  in  terms  so 
general  that  it  might  equally  well  be  interpreted  as  a  traditional 
recommendation  of  humility  and  endurance;  the  term,  "inward 
light/*  though  it  is  a  more  or  less  technical  term  of  Calvinism 
and  of  Quietism,  has  figuratively  a  very  wide  applicability;  the 


third  line  of  the  poem,  though  it  is  in  the  tradition  of  Calvinistic 
exhortation,  exceeds  any  rigorous  and  literal  interpretation  of  Cal- 
vinistic dogma,  for  it  recommends  a  course  of  action  as  a  means 
to  salvation.  In  this  poem,  then,  we  see  the  religious  experience 
expressed  fully  and  richly,  unhampered  by  the  heretical  dogmas 
of  the  author. 

Nor  is  the  vision  of  the  resurrection  an  obstacle  to  the  non- 
believer,  for  it  may,  as  in  so  much  devotional  but  non-mystical 
poetry,  be  accepted  merely  as  an  allegorical  representation  of  a 
moral  state— of  the  condition  of  Socrates  just  before  drinking  the 
hemlock  instead  of  a  few  hours  later. 

Equally  perfect,  but  of  less  power,  is  a  hymn  entitled  The 
Visit;  nearly  as  perfect  is  a  song,  The  Call,  of  which  the  last 
stanza  is  missing  from  the  edition  of  1883;  less  perfect  still,  and 
less  compact,  but  of  a  magnificence  at  moments  comparable  to 
that  of  Henry  Vaughan,  is  a  hymn  entitled  The  Coming  of  the 
Lord.  There  are  other  poems,  which,  because  of  imperfections  or 
limitations  of  scope,  are  of  secondary  importance,  but  which  are 
still  worthy  of  examination:  The  Presence, The  Still-Born  (which 
appears  only  in  the  edition  of  1886),  The  Son,  In  Him  We  Live, 
The  Earth,  The  New  Birth,  The  New  World,  The  Morning 
Watch,  The  Dead,  The  Prison,  Enoch,  and  The  Cottage;  and 
there  are  doubtless  others. 

I  might  endeavor  to  illustrate  Very's  genius  further  by  the  quo- 
tation of  a  good  many  fine  lines  from  the  poems  I  have  just  men- 
tioned, but  the  procedure  would  be  largely  unjust,  for  Very  is 
not  a  poet  of  separable  moments;  his  poems  are  reasoned  and 
coherent,  and  the  full  force  of  a  passage  will  be  evident  only 
when  one  meets  it  in  the  context.8  Further,  there  is  a  quality  of 
intense  personal  conviction  in  Very,  a  kind  of  saturation  with  his 
subject  and  his  feeling,  which  one  tends  to  lose  in  a  brief  passage; 
it  is  a  conviction  so  extraordinary  that  in  some  of  his  secondary 
achievements  it  is  able  to  carry  a  considerable  weight  of  stero- 
typed  language  without  the  destruction  of  the  poem.  To  appre- 
ciate the  finer  shades  of  his  statement  one  should  be  familiar, 

8  See  page  344. 


moreover,  with  his  work  as  a  whole,  for  he  is  essentially  a  theo- 
logical poet,  and  his  references  to  doctrine  are  on  the  one  hand 
fleeting  and  subtle,  and  on  the  other  hand  of  the  utmost  im- 
portance to  a  perception  of  his  beauty;  and  in  addition,  his  finest 
effects  are  the  result  of  fine  variations  in  tone,  the  appreciation 
of  which  must  of  necessity  depend  in  a  large  measure  upon  a 
consciousness  of  the  norm  from  which  the  variations  occur. 

Very  numbered  among  his  admirers  the  elder  W.  E.  Channing, 
Emerson,  Clarke,  Andrews,  Norton,  Hawthorne,  Bryant,  and 
other  persons  of  distinction;  his  contemporaries  repeatedly  com- 
pared him  to  George  Herbert,  and  it  would  appear  with  at  least 
a  show  of  reason.  Yet  for  fifty  years  he  has  rested  in  oblivion, 
except  as  a  name,  incorrectly  described,  in  the  academic  sum- 
maries of  his  period.  It  is  now  fifty-seven  years  since  his  death, 
and  a  hundred  years  since  he  first  entered  upon  his  full  poetic 
power;  we  are  now  very  close  to  the  centenary  of  his  confinement 
to  the  asylum  at  Somerville.  In  this  last,  at  least,  it  should  be 
possible  to  find  some  significance  that  will  justify  our  recalling 
him  to  memdry.  Perhaps  the  moral  is  merely  this :  that  it  is  nearly 
time  that  we  paid  him  the  apology  long  due  him  and  established 
him  clearly  and  permanently  in  his  rightful  place  in  the  history 
of  our  literature. 



and  The  Limits  of  Judgment 

Antiquest  felt  at  noon 
When  August,  burning  low, 
Calls  forth  this  spectral  canticle, 
Repose  to  typify. 

WHEN  THE  POEMS  of  Emily  Dickinson  first  began  to  appear,  in 
the  years  shortly  following  her  death,  she  enjoyed  a  period  of 
notoriety  and  of  semi-popularity  that  endured  for  perhaps  ten 
years;  after  about  ten  years  of  semi-obscurity,  her  reputation  was 
revived  with  the  publication  of  The  Single  Hound,  and  has  lasted 
unabated  to  the  present  day,  though  with  occasional  signs  that  it 
may  soon  commence  to  diminish.  A  good  many  critics  have  re- 
sented her  reputation,  and  it  has  not  been  hard  for  them  to  jus- 
tify their  resentment;  probably  no  poet  of  comparable  reputation 
has  been  guilty  of  so  much  unpardonable  writing.  On  the  other 
hand,  one  cannot  shake  off  the  uncomfortable  feeling  that  her 
popularity  has  been  mainly  due  to  her  vices;  her  worst  poems  are 
certainly  her  most  commonly  praised,  and  as  a  general  matter, 
great  lyric  poetry  is  not  widely  read  or  admired. 

The  problem  of  judging  her  better  poems  is  much  of  the  time 
a  subtle  one.  Her  meter,  at  its  worst— that  is,  most  of  the  time- 
is  a  kind  of  stiff  sing-song;  her  diction,  at  its  worst,  is  a  kind  of 
poetic  nursery  jargon;  and  there  is  a  remarkable  continuity  of 
manner,  of  a  kind  nearly  indescribable,  between  her  worst  and 
her  best  poems.  The  following  poem  will  illustrate  the  defects  in 
perfection : 

Z  like  to  see  it  lap  the  miles, 
And  lick  the  valleys  up, 

And  stop  to  feed  itself  at  tanks; 
And  then,  prodigious,  step 

Around  a  pile  of  mountains, 
And,  supercilious,  peer 
In  shanties  by  the  sides  of  roads; 
And  then  a  quarry  pare 

To  fit  its  sides,  and  crawl  between, 
Complaining  all  the  while 
In  horrid,  hooting  stanza; 
Then  chase  itself  down  hill 

And  neigh  like  Boanerges; 
Then,  punctual  as  a  star, 
Stop— docile  and  omnipotent— 
At  its  own  stable  door. 

The  poem  is  abominable;  and  the  quality  of  silly  playfulness 
which  renders  it  abominable  is  diffused  more  or  less  perceptibly 
throughout  most  of  her  work,  and  this  diffusion  is  facilitated  by 
the  limited  range  of  her  metrical  schemes. 

The  difficulty  is  this:  that  even  in  her  most  nearly  perfect 
poems,  even  in  those  poems  in  which  the  defects  do  not  intrude 
momentarily  in  a  crudely  obvious  form,  one  is  likely  to  feel  a 
fine  trace  of  her  countrified  eccentricity;  there  is  nearly  always  a 
margin  of  ambiguity  in  our  final  estimate  of  even  her  most  ex- 
traordinary work,  and  though  the  margin  may  appear  to  dimin- 
ish or  disappear  in  a  given  reading  of  a  favorite  poem,  one  feels 
no  certainty  that  it  will  not  reappear  more  obviously  with  the 
next  reading.  Her  best  poems,  quite  unlike  the  best  poems  of  Ben 
Jonson,  of  George  Herbert,  or  of  Thomas  Hardy,  can  never  be 
isolated  certainly  and  defensibly  from  her  defects;  yet  she  is  a 
poetic  genius  of  the  highest  order,  and  this  ambiguity  in  one's 
feeling  about  her  is  profoundly  disturbing.  The  following  poem 
is  a  fairly  obvious  illustration;  we  shall  later  see  less  obvious: 

I  started  early,  took  my  dog, 
And  visited  the  sea; 
The  mermaids  in  the  basement 
Came  out  to  look  at  me, 

And  frigates  in  the  upper  floor 
Extended  hempen  hands, 
Presuming  me  to  loe  a  mouse 
Aground,  upon  the  sands. 

But  no  man  moved  me  till  the  tide 
Went  past  my  simple  shoe, 
And  past  my  apron  and  my  belt, 
And  past  my  bodice  too, 

And  made  as  he  would  eat  me  up 
As  wholly  as  a  dew 
Upon  a  dandelions  sleeve— 
And  then  I  started  too. 

And  he— he  followed  close  behind; 
I  felt  his  silver  heel 
Upon  my  ankle,— then  my  shoes 
Would  overflow  with  pearl. 

Until  we  met  the  solid  town, 
No  man  he  seemed  to  know; 
And  bowing  with  a  mighty  look 
At  me,  the  sea  withdrew. 

The  mannerisms  are  nearly  as  marked  as  in  the  first  poem, 
but  whereas  the  first  poem  was  purely  descriptive,  this  poem  is 
allegorical  and  contains  beneath  the  more  or  less  mannered  sur- 
face an  ominously  serious  theme,  so  that  the  manner  appears  in 
a  new  light  and  is  somewhat  altered  in  effect.  The  sea  is  here  the 
traditional  symbol  of  death;  that  is,  of  all  the  forces  and  quali- 


ties  in  nature  and  in  human  nature  which  tend  toward  the  disso- 
lution of  human  character  and  consciousness.  The  playful  pro- 
tagonist, the  simple  village  maiden,  though  she  speaks  again  in 
the  first  person,  is  dramatized,  as  if  seen  from  without,  and  her 
playfulness  is  somewhat  restrained  and  formalized.  Does  this 
formalization,  this  dramatization,  combined  with  a  major  sym- 
bolism, suffice  effectually  to  transmute  in  this  poem  the  quality 
discerned  in  the  first  poem,  or  does  that  quality  linger  as  a  fine 
defect?  The  poem  is  a  poem  of  power;  it  may  even  be  a  great 
poem;  but  this  is  not  to  answer  the  question.  1  have  never  been 
able  to  answer  the  question. 

Her  poetic  subject  matter  might  be  subdivided  roughly  as  fol- 
lows: natural  description;  the  definition  of  moral  experience, 
including  the  definition  of  difficulties  of  comprehension;  and 
mystical  experience,  or  the  definition  of  the  experience  of  "im- 
mortality," to  use  a  favorite  word,  or  of  beatitude.  The  second 
subdivision  includes  a  great  deal,  and  her  best  work  falls  within 
it;  I  shall  consider  it  last.  Her  descriptive  poems  contain  here 
and  there  brilliant  strokes,  but  she  had  the  hard  and  uncompro- 
mising approach  to  experience  of  the  early  New  England  Calvin- 
ists;  lacking  all  subtlety,  she  displays  the  heavy  hand  of  one  unac- 
customed to  fragile  objects;  her  efforts  at  lightness  are  distressing. 
Occasionally,  instead  of  endeavoring  to  treat  the  small  subject 
in  terms  appropriate  to  it,  she  endeavors  to  treat  it  in  terms  appro- 
priate to  her  own  temperament,  and  we  have  what  appears  a 
deliberate  excursion  into  obscurity,  the  subject  being  inadequate 
to  the  rhetoric,  as  in  the  last  stanza  of  the  poem  beginning,  "At 
half-past  three  a  single  bird" : 

At  half-fast  seven,  element 

Nor  implement  was  seen, 

And  place  was  where  the  presence  was, 

Circumference  between. 

The  stanza  probably  means,  roughly,  that  bird  and  song  alike 
have  disappeared,  but  the  word  "circumference,"  a  resonant  and 
impressive  one,  is  pure  nonsense. 

This  unpredictable  boldness  in  plunging  into  obscurity,  a  bold- 
ness in  part,  perhaps,  inherited  from  the  earlier  New  Englanders 
whose  sense  of  divine  guidance  was  so  highly  developed,  whose 
humility  of  spirit  was  commonly  so  small;  a  boldness  dramatized 
by  Melville  in  the  character  of  Ahab;  this  congenital  boldness 
may  have  led  her  to  attempt  the  rendering  of  purely  theoretic 
experience,  the  experience  of  life  after  death.  There  are  numer- 
ous poems  which  attempt  to  express  the  experience  of  posthu- 
mous beatitude,  as  if  she  were  already  familiar  with  it;  the  poetic 
terms  of  the  expression  are  terms,  either  abstract  or  concrete,  of 
human  life,  but  suddenly  fixed,  or  approaching  fixation,  as  if  at 
the  cessation  of  time  in  eternity,  as  if  to  the  dead  the  living  world 
appeared  as  immobile  as  the  dead  person  appears  to  the  living, 
and  the  fixation  frequently  involves  an  element  of  horror: 

Great  streets  of  silence  led  away 
To  neighborhoods  of  pause; 
Here  was  no  notice,  no  dissent, 
No  universe,  no  laws. 

By  clocks  'twas  morning,  and  for  night 
The  bells  at  distance  called; 
But  epoch  had  no  basis  here, 
For  period  exhaled. 

The  device  here  employed  is  to  select  a  number  of  terms  rep- 
resenting familiar  abstractions  or  perceptions,  some  of  a  com- 
monplace nature,  some  relatively  grandiose  or  metaphysical,  and 
one  by  one  to  negate  these  terms;  a  number  of  statements,  from 
a  grammatical  point  of  view,  have  been  made,  yet  actually  no 
concrete  image  emerges,  and  the  idea  of  the  poem— the  idea  of 
the  absolute  dissidence  of  the  eternal  from  the  temporal— is  stated 
indirectly,  and,  in  spite  of  the  brevity  of  the  poem  and  the  gnomic 
manner,  with  extraordinary  redundancy.  We  come  painfully 
close  in  this  poem  to  the  irresponsible  playfulness  of  the  poem 
about  the  railway  train;  we  have  gone  beyond  the  irresponsible 
obscurity  of  the  poem  about  the  bird. 


This  is  technically  a  mystical  poem:  that  is,  it  endeavors  to 
render  an  experience— the  rapt  contemplation,  eternal  and  im- 
movable, which  Aquinas  describes  as  the  condition  of  beatitude 
—which  is  by  definition  foreign  to  all  human  experience,  yet  to 
render  it  in  terms  of  a  modified  human  experience.  Yet  there  is 
no  particular  reason  to  believe  that  Emily  Dickinson  was  a  mystic, 
or  thought  she  was  a  mystic.  The  poems  of  this  variety,  and 
there  are  many  of  them,  appear  rather  to  be  efforts  to  drama- 
tize an  idea  of  salvation,  intensely  felt,  but  as  an  idea,  not  as 
something  experienced,  and  as  an  idea  essentially  inexpressible. 
She  deliberately  utilizes  imagery  irrelevant  to  the  state  with 
which  she  is  concerned,  because  she  cannot  do  otherwise;  yet  the 
attitude  toward  the  material,  the  attitude  of  rapt  contemplation, 
is  the  attitude  which  she  presumably  expects  to  achieve  toward 
something  that  she  has  never  experienced.  The  poems  are  in- 
variably forced  and  somewhat  theoretical;  they  are  briskly  clever, 
and  lack  the  obscure  but  impassioned  conviction  of  the  mystical 
poems  of  Very;  they  lack  the  tragic  finality,  the  haunting  sense 
of  human  isolation  in  a  foreign  universe,  to  be  found  in  her 
greatest  poems,  of  which  the  explicit  theme  is  a  denial  of  this 
mystical  trance,  is  a  statement  of  the  limits  of  judgment. 

There  are  a  few  curious  and  remarkable  poems  representing  a 
mixed  theme,  of  which  the  following  is  perhaps  the  finest  ex- 

Because  I  could  not  stop  for  Death, 
He  kindly  stopped  for  me; 
The  carriage  held  lout  just  ourselves 
And  Immortality. 

We  slowly  drove,  he  knew  no  haste, 
And  I  had  put  away 
My  labor,  and  my  leisure  too, 
For  his  civility. 

We  passed  the  school  where  children  played 
At  wrestling  in  a  ring; 


We  passed  the  fields  of  gazing  grain, 
We  passed  the  setting  sun. 

We  paused  before  a  house  that  seemed 
A  swelling  of  the  ground; 
The  roof  was  scarcely  visible, 
The  cornice  but  a  mound. 

Since  then  'tis  centuries;  but  each 
Feels  shorter  than  the  day 
1  first  surmised  the  horses  heads 
Were  toward  eternity. 

In  the  fourth  line  we  find  the  familiar  device  of  using  a  major  ab- 
straction in  a  somewhat  loose  and  indefinable  manner;  in  the  last 
stanza  there  is  the  semi-playful  pretence  of  familiarity  with  the 
posthumous  experience  of  eternity,  so  that  the  poem  ends  un- 
convincingly  though  gracefully,  with  a  formulary  gesture  very 
roughly  comparable  to  that  of  the  concluding  couplet  of  many  an 
Elizabethan  sonnet  of  love;  for  the  rest  the  poem  is  a  remarkably 
beautiful  poem  on  the  subject  of  the  daily  realization  of  the  im- 
minence of  death— it  is  a  poem  of  departure  from  life,  an  intensely 
conscious  leave-taking.  In  so  far  as  it  concentrates  on  the  life  that 
is  being  left  behind,  it  is  wholly  successful;  in  so  far  as  it  attempts 
to  experience  the  death  to  come,  it  is  fraudulent,  however  ex- 
quisitely, and  in  this  it  falls  below  her  finest  achievement.  Allen 
Tate,  who  appears  to  be  unconcerned  with  this  fraudulent  ele- 
ment, praises  the  poem  in  the  highest  terms;  he  appears  almost  to 
praise  it  for  its  defects : *  "The  sharp  gazing  before  grain  instils  into 
nature  a  kind  of  cold  vitality  of  which  the  qualitative  richness  has 
infinite  depth.  The  content  of  death  in  the  poem  eludes  forever 
any  explicit  definition  .  .  .  she  has  presented  a  typical  Christian 
theme  in  all  its  final  irresolution,  without  making  any  final  state- 
ment about  it."  The  poem  ends  in  irresolution  in  the  sense  that 
it  ends  in  a  statement  that  is  not  offered  seriously;  to  praise  the 

1  Reactionary  Essays  on  Poetry  and  Ideas,  by  Allen  Tate.  Scribners,  1936. 
The  essay  on  Emily  Dickinson. 


poem  for  this  is  unsound  criticism,  however.  It  is  possible  to  solve 
any  problem  of  insoluble  experience  by  retreating  a  step  and  de- 
fining the  boundary  at  which  comprehension  ceases,  and  by  then 
making  the  necessary  moral  adjustments  to  that  boundary;  this 
in  itself  is  an  experience  both  final  and  serious,  and  it  is  the  ex- 
perience on  which  our  author's  finest  work  is  based. 

Let  me  illustrate  by  citation.  The  following  poem  defines  the 
subject  which  the  mystical  poems  endeavor  to  conceal :  the  soul 
is  taken  to  the  brink  of  the  incomprehensible,  and  is  left  there, 
for  retreat  is  impossible,  and  advance  is  impossible  without  a 
transmutation  of  the  soul's  very  nature.  The  third  and  fourth 
lines  display  the  playful  redundancy  of  her  weaker  poems,  but 
the  intrusion  of  the  quality  here  is  the  result  of  habit,  and  is  a 
minor  defect;  there  is  nothing  in  the  conception  of  the  poem  de- 
manding a  compromise.  There  is  great  power  in  the  phrasing  of 
the  remainder  of  the  poem,  especially  in  the  middle  stanza: 

Our  journey  had  advanced; 
%  Our  feet  were  almost  come 

To  that  odd  fork  in  Beings  road, 
Eternity  by  term. 

Our  face  took  sudden  awe, 
Our  feet  reluctant  led. 
Before  were  cities,  but  between 
The  forest  of  the  dead. 

Retreat  was  out  of  hope,— 
Behind,  a  sealed  route, 
Eternity's  white  flag  before, 
And  God  at  every  gate. 

She  is  constantly  defining  the  absolute  cleavage  between  the 
living  and  the  dead.  In  the  following  poem  the  definition  is  made 
more  powerfully,  and  in  other  terms: 

fTwas  warm  at  first,  like  us, 
Until  there  crept  thereon 

A  chill,  like  frost  upon  a  glass, 
Till  all  the  scene  be  gone. 

The  forehead  copied  stone, 
The  fingers  grew  too  cold 
To  ache,  and  like  a  skaters  brook 
The  busy  eyes  congealed. 

It  straightened— that  was  all- 
It  crowded  cold  to  cold- 
It  multiplied  indifference 
As  Pride  were  all  it  could. 

And  even  when  with  cords 
'Twas  lowered  like  a  freight, 
It  made  no  signal,  nor  demurred, 
But  dropped  like  adamant. 

The  stiffness  of  phrasing,  as  in  the  barbarously  constructed  fourth 
and  twelfth  lines,  is  allied  to  her  habitual  carelessness,  yet  in 
this  poem  there  is  at  least  no  triviality,  and  the  imagery  of  the 
third  stanza  in  particular  has  tremendous  power. 

The  poem  beginning,  "The  last  night  that  she  lived/'  treats 
the  same  theme  in  more  personal  terms;  the  observer  watches  the 
death  of  a  friend,  that  is  follows  the  friend  to  the  brink  of  the 
comprehensible,  sees  her  pass  the  brink,  and  faces  the  loss.  The 
poem  contains  a  badly  mixed  figure  and  at  least  two  major  gram- 
matical blunders,  in  addition  to  a  little  awkward  inversion  of  an 
indefensible  variety,  yet  there  is  in  the  poem  an  immediate  seizing 
of  terrible  fact,  which  makes  it,  at  least  f ragmen tarily,  very  great 

And  we,  we  placed  the  hair, 

And  drew  the  head  erect; 

And  then  an  awful  leisure  was, 

Our  faith  to  regulate. 

Her  inability  to  take  Christian  mysticism  seriously  did  not, 
however,  drive  her  to  the  opposite  extreme  of  the  pantheistic 


mysticism  which  was  seducing  her  contemporaries.  The  follow- 
ing lines,  though  not  remarkable  poetry,  are  a  clear  statement  of 
a  position  consistently  held: 

But  nature  is  a  stranger  yet; 

The  ones  that  cite  her  most 
Have  never  passed  her  haunted  house, 

Nor  simplified  her  ghost. 

To  pity  those  that  know  her  not 

Is  helped  by  the  regret 
That  those  who  know  her,  knoiv  her  less 

The  nearer  her  they  get. 

Nature  as  a  symbol,  as  Allen  Tate  has  pointed  out  in  the  essay 
to  which  I  have  already  referred,  remains  immitigably  the  symbol 
of  all  the  elements  which  corrupt,  dissolve,  and  destroy  human 
character  and  consciousness;  to  approach  nature  is  to  depart  from 
the  fullness  of  human  life,  and  to  join  nature  is  to  leave  human 
life.  Nature  may  thus  be  a  symbol  of  death,  representing  much 
the  same  idea  as  the  corpse  in  the  poem  beginning  "  'Twas  warm 
at  first,  like  us,"  but  involving  a  more  complex  range  of  associa- 

In  the  following  poem,  we  are  shown  the  essential  cleavage 
between  man,  as  represented  by  the  author-reader,  and  nature, 
as  represented  by  the  insects  in  the  late  summer  grass;  the  sub- 
ject is  the  plight  of  man,  the  willing  and  freely  moving  entity, 
in  a  universe  in  which  he  is  by  virtue  of  his  essential  qualities 
a  foreigner.  The  intense  nostalgia  of  the  poem  is  the  nostalgia 
of  man  for  the  mode  of  being  which  he  perceives  imperfectly 
and  in  which  he  cannot  share.  The  change  described  in  the  last 
two  lines  is  the  change  in  the  appearance  of  nature  and  in  the 
feeling  of  the  observer  which  results  from  a  recognition  of  the 

Farther  in  summer  than  the  birds, 
Pathetic  from  the  grass, 

A  minor  nation  celebrates 
Its  unobtrusive  mass. 

No  ordinance  is  seen, 

So  gradual  the  grace, 

A  pensive  custom  it  becomes, 

Enlarging  loneliness. 

Antiquest  felt  at  noon 
When  August,  burning  low, 
Calls  forth  this  spectral  canticle, 
Repose  to  typify. 

Remit  as  yet  no  grace, 
No  furrow  on  the  glow, 
Yet  a  druidic  difference 
Enhances  nature  now. 

The  first  two  lines  of  the  last  stanza  are  written  in  the  author's 
personal  grammatical  short-hand;  they  are  no  doubt  defective  in 
this  respect,  but  the  defect  is  minor.  They  mean :  There  is  as  yet 
no  diminution  of  beauty,  no  mark  of  change  on  the  brightness. 
The  twelfth  line  employs  a  meaningless  inversion.  On  the  other 
hand,  the  false  rhymes  are  employed  with  unusually  fine  modu- 
lation; the  first  rhyme  is  perfect,  the  second  and  third  represent 
successive  stages  of  departure,  and  the  last  a  return  to  what  is 
roughly  the  stage  of  the  second.  These  effects  are  complicated 
by  the  rhyming,  both  perfect  and  imperfect,  from  stanza  to  stanza. 
The  intense  strangeness  of  this  poem  could  not  have  been 
achieved  with  standard  rhyming.  The  poem,  though  not  quite 
one  of  her  most  nearly  perfect,  is  probably  one  of  her  five  or  six 
greatest,  and  is  one  of  the  most  deeply  moving  and  most  unfor- 
gettable poems  in  my  own  experience;  I  have  the  feeling  of 
having  lived  in  its  immediate  presence  for  many  years. 

The  three  poems  which  combine  her  greatest  power  with  her 
finest  execution  are  strangely  on  much  the  same  theme,  both  as 
regards  the  idea  embodied  and  as  regards  the  allegorical  embodi- 


ment.  They  deal  with  the  inexplicable  fact  of  change,  of  the  ab- 
solute cleavage  between  successive  states  of  being,  and  it  is  not 
unnatural  that  in  two  of  the  poems  this  theme  should  be  related 
to  the  theme  of  death.  In  each  poem,  seasonal  change  is  em- 
ployed as  the  concrete  symbol  of  the  moral  change.  This  is  not 
the  same  thing  as  the  so-called  pathetic  fallacy  of  the  romantics, 
the  imposition  of  a  personal  emotion  upon  a  physical  object  in- 
capable either  of  feeling  such  an  emotion  or  of  motivating  it  in 
a  human  being.  It  is  rather  a  legitimate  and  traditional  form  of 
allegory,  in  which  the  relationships  between  the  items  described 
resemble  exactly  the  relationships  between  certain  moral  ideas  or 
experiences;  the  identity  of  relationship  evoking  simultaneously 
and  identifying  with  each  other  the  feelings  attendant  upon  both 
series  as  they  appear  separately.  Here  are  the  three  poems,  in  the 
order  of  the  seasons  employed,  and  in  the  order  of  increasing 
complexity  both  of  theme  and  of  technique: 


A  light  exists  in  spring 
Not  present  in  the  year 
At  any  other  period. 
When  March  is  scarcely  here 

A  color  stands  abroad 

On  solitary  hills 

That  science  cannot  overtake, 

But  human  nature  feels. 

It  waits  upon  the  lawn; 
It  shows  the  furthest  tree 
Upon  the  furthest  slope  we  know; 
It  almost  speaks  to  me. 

Then,  as  horizons  step, 
Or  noons  report  away, 


Without  the  formula  of  sound, 
It  passes,  and  we  stay: 

A  quality  of  loss 

Affecting  our  content, 

As  trade  had  suddenly  encroached 

Upon  a  sacrament. 

As  imperceptibly  as  grief 
The  Summer  lapsed  away,— 
Too  imperceptible,  at  last, 
To  seem  like  perfidy. 

A  quietness  distilled, 

As  twilight  long  begun, 

Or  Nature,  spending  with  herself 

Sequestered  afternoon. 

The  dusk  drew  earlier  in, 
The  morning  foreign  shone,— 
A  courteous,  yet  harrowing  grace, 
As  guest  who  would  be  gone. 

And  thus,  without  a  wing, 

Or  service  of  a  keel, 

Our  summer  made  her  light  escape 

Into  the  beautiful. 

There's  a  certain  slant  of  light, 
On  winter  afternoons, 


That  oppresses,  like  the  weight 
Of  cathedral  tunes. 

Heavenly  hurt  it  gives  us; 
We  can  find  no  scar, 
But  internal  difference 
Where  the  meanings  are. 

None  may  teach  it  anything, 
'Tis  the  seal,  despair,— 
An  imperial  affliction 
Sent  us  of  the  air. 

When  it  comes,,  the  landscape  listens, 
Shadows  hold  their  breath; 
When  it  goes,  'tis  like  the  distance 
On  the  look  of  death. 

In  the  seventh,  eighth,  and  twelfth  lines  of  the  first  poem,  and, 
it  is  barely  possible,  in  the  seventh  and  eighth  of  the  third,  there 
is  a  very  slight  echo  of  the  brisk  facility  of  her  poorer  work;  the 
last  line  of  the  second  poem,  perhaps,  verges  ever  so  slightly  on 
an  easy  prettiness  of  diction,  though  scarcely  of  substance.  These 
defects  are  shadowy,  however;  had  the  poems  been  written  by 
another  writer,  it  is  possible  that  we  should  not  observe  them. 
On  the  other  hand,  the  directness,  dignity,  and  power  with 
which  these  major  subjects  are  met,  the  quality  of  the  phrasing, 
at  once  clairvoyant  and  absolute,  raise  the  poems  to  the  highest 
level  of  English  lyric  poetry. 

The  meter  of  these  poems  is  worth  careful  scrutiny.  The  basis 
of  all  three  is  the  so-called  Poulter's  Measure,  first  employed,  if 
I  remember  aright,  by  Surrey,  and  after  the  time  of  Sidney  in 
disrepute.  It  is  the  measure,  however,  not  only  of  the  great  elegy 
on  Sidney  commonly  attributed  to  Fulke  Greville,  but  of  some  of 
the  best  poetry  between  Surrey  and  Sidney,  including  the  fine 
poem  by  Vaux  on  contentment  and  the  great  poem  by  Gascoigne 
in  praise  of  a  gentlewoman  of  dark  complexion.  The  English 

poets  commonly  though  not  invariably  wrote  the  poem  in  two 
long  lines  instead  of  four  short  ones,  and  the  lines  so  conceived 
were  the  basis  of  their  rhetoric.  In  the  first  of  the  three  poems 
just  quoted,  the  measure  is  employed  without  alteration,  but 
the  short  line  is  the  basis  of  the  rhetoric;  an  arrangement  which 
permits  of  more  varied  adjustment  of  sentence  to  line  than  if  the 
long  line  were  the  basis.  In  the  second  poem,  the  first  stanza  is 
composed  not  in  the  basic  measure,  but  in  lines  of  eight,  six, 
eight,  and  six  syllables;  the  shift  into  the  normal  six,  six,  eight, 
and  six  in  the  second  stanza,  as  in  the  second  stanza  of  the  poem 
beginning,  "Farther  in  summer/'  results  in  a  subtle  and  beautiful 
muting  both  of  meter  and  of  tone.  This  shift  she  employs  else- 
where, but  especially  in  poems  of  four  stanzas,  to  which  it  ap- 
pears to  have  a  natural  relationship;  it  is  a  brilliant  technical  in- 

In  the  third  poem  she  varies  her  simple  base  with  the  ingenu- 
ity and  mastery  of  a  virtuoso.  In  the  first  stanza,  the  two  long 
lines  are  reduced  to  seven  syllables  each,  by  the  dropping  of  the 
initial  unaccented  syllable;  the  second  short  line  is  reduced  to 
five  syllables  in  the  same  manner.  In  the  second  stanza,  the  first 
line,  which  ought  now  to  be  of  six  syllables,  has  but  five  metrical 
syllables,  unless  we  violate  normal  usage  and  count  the  second 
and  infinitely  light  syllable  of  Heaven,  with  an  extrametrical  syl- 
lable at  the  end,  the  syllable  dropped  being  again  the  initial  one; 
the  second  line,  which  ought  to  have  six  syllables,  has  likewise 
lost  its  initial  syllable,  but  the  extrametrical  us  of  the  preceding 
line,  being  unaccented,  is  in  rhythmical  effect  the  first  syllable  of 
the  second  line,  so  that  this  syllable  serves  a  double  and  ambigu- 
ous function— it  maintains  the  syllable-count  of  the  first  line,  in 
spite  of  an  altered  rhythm,  and  it  maintains  the  rhythm  of  the 
second  line  in  spite  of  the  altered  syllable-count.  The  third  and 
fourth  lines  of  the  second  stanza  are  shortened  to  seven  and  five. 
In  the  third  stanza  the  first  and  second  lines  are  constructed  like 
the  third  and  fourth  of  the  second  stanza;  the  third  and  fourth 
lines  like  the  first  and  second  of  the  second  stanza,  except  that 
in  the  third  line  the  initial  unaccented  position  is  filled  and  we 
have  a  light  anapest;  that  is,  the  third  stanza  repeats  the  con- 


struction  of  the  second,  but  in  reverse  order.  The  final  stanza  is  a 
triumphant  resolution  of  the  three  preceding:  the  first  and  third 
lines,  like  the  second  and  fourth,  are  metrically  identical;  the 
first  and  third  contain  seven  syllables  each,  with  an  additional 
extrametrical  syllable  at  the  end  which  takes  the  place  of  the 
missing  syllable  at  the  beginning  of  each  subsequent  short  line, 
at  the  same  time  that  the  extrametrical  syllable  functions  in  the 
line  in  which  it  is  written  as  part  of  a  two-syllable  rhyme.  The 
elaborate  structure  of  this  poem  results  in  the  balanced  hesita- 
tions and  rapid  resolutions  which  one  hears  in  reading  it.  This 
is  metrical  artistry  at  about  as  high  a  level  as  one  is  likely  to  find  it. 

Emily  Dickinson  was  a  product  of  the  New  England  tradition 
of  moral  Calvinism;  her  dissatisfaction  with  her  tradition  led 
to  her  questioning  most  of  its  theology  and  discarding  much  of 
it,  and  led  to  her  reinterpreting  some  of  it,  one  would  gather,  in 
the  direction  of  a  more  nearly  Catholic  Christianity.  Her  ac- 
ceptance of  Christian  moral  concepts  was  unimpaired,  and  the 
moral  tone  of  her  character  remained  immitigably  Calvinistic  in 
its  hard  and  direct  simplicity.  As  a  result  of  this  Calvinistic  tem- 
per, she  lacked  the  lightness  and  grace  which  might  have  en- 
abled her  to  master  minor  themes;  she  sometimes  stepped  with- 
out hesitation  into  obscurantism,  both  verbal  and  metaphysical. 
But  also  as  a  result  of  it,  her  best  poetry  represents  a  moral  adjust- 
ment to  certain  major  problems  which  are  carefully  defined;  it  is 
curious  in  the  light  of  this  fact,  and  in  the  light  of  the  discussion 
which  they  have  received,  that  her  love  poems  never  equal  her 
highest  achievement— her  best  work  is  on  themes  more  gener- 
alized and  inclusive. 

Emily  Dickinson  differed  from  every  other  major  New  Eng- 
land writer  of  the  nineteenth  century,  and  from  every  major 
American  writer  of  the  century  save  Melville,  of  those  affected 
by  New  England,  in  this:  that  her  New  England  heritage, 
though  it  made  her  life  a  moral  drama,  die]  not  leave  her  life  in 
moral  confusion.  It  impoverished  her  in  one  respect,  however: 
of  all  great  poets,  she  is  the  most  lacking  in  taste;  there  are  in- 
numerable beautiful  lines  and  passages  wasted  in  the  desert  of 
her  crudities;  her  defects,  more  than  those  of  any  other  great 

poet  that  I  have  read,  are  constantly  at  the  brink,  or  pushing  be- 
yond the  brink,  of  her  best  poems.  This  stylistic  character  is  the 
natural  product  of  the  New  England  which  produced  the  barren 
little  meeting  houses;  of  the  New  England  founded  by  the  harsh 
and  intrepid  pioneers,  who  in  order  to  attain  salvation  trampled 
brutally  through  a  world  which  they  were  too  proud  and  too  im- 
patient to  understand.  In  this  respect,  she  differs  from  Melville, 
whose  taste  was  rich  and  cultivated.  But  except  by  Melville,  she 
is  surpassed  by  no  writer  that  this  country  has  produced;  she  is 
one  of  the  greatest  lyric  poets  of  all  time. 



or  Henry  James  and  the  Relation  of  Morals 
to  Manners 

"Be  careful  not  to  drink  at  Maules  well!"  said  he.  "Neither  drink 
nor  loathe  your  face  in  itl" 

"Maule's  welll"  answered  Phoebe.  "Is  that  it  with  the  rim  of  mossy 
stones?  I  have  no  thought  of  drinking  there— hut  why  not?" 

"Oh"  rejoined  the  daguerreotypist,  "because,  like  an  old  lady's  cup 
of  tea,  it  is  water  bewitched!" 

—The  House  of  the  Seven  Gables 

THE  MOTIVATING  IDEAS  of  most  of  the  novels  of  Henry  James 
might  be  summarized  very  briefly,  and  perhaps  a  trifle  crudely, 
as  follows:  that  there  is  a  moral  sense,  a  sense  of  decency,  inher- 
ent in  human  character  at  its  best;  that  this  sense  of  decency,  be- 
ing only  a  sense,  exists  precariously,  and  may  become  confused 
and  even  hysterical  in  a  crisis;  that  it  may  be  enriched  and  cul- 
tivated through  association  with  certain  environments;  that  such 
association  may,  also,  be  carried  so  far  as  to  extinguish  the  moral 
sense.  This  last  relationship,  that  of  the  moral  sense  to  an  en- 
vironment which  may  up  to  a  certain  point  enrich  it  and  beyond 
that  point  dissolve  it,  resembles  the  ordinary  relationship  of  in- 
tellect to  experience,  of  character  to  sensibility. 

If  we  carry  these  generalizations  a  little  farther  into  the  spe- 
cial terms  of  his  novels,  we  find,  however:  that  the  moral  sense 
as  James  conceives  it  is  essentially  American  or  at  least  appears  to 
James  most  clearly  in  American  character;  that  it  can  be  culti- 
vated by  association  with  European  civilization  and  manners; 
that  it  may  be  weakened  or  in  some  other  manner  betrayed  by  an 
excess  of  such  association. 

Superficially  this  description  seems  to  omit  the  novels  of  the 


brief  middle  period,  in  which  most  of  the  characters  were  British 
and  in  which  none  were  American;  but  actually  these  novels 
are  in  nearly  every  case  constructed  in  much  the  same  terms,  for 
the  "American"  characteristics  are  given  to  certain  personages, 
and  the  "European"  to  certain  others.  This  formula  will  be  some- 
what qualified  as  we  proceed,  but  I  believe  that  it  is  essentially 

Now  this  particular  kind  of  moral  sense  may  have  existed  in 
Europe  as  well  as  in  America,  but  so  far  as  James  was  concerned, 
it  was  essentially  an  American  phenomenon:  in  the  first  place, 
I  believe  that  I  shall  be  able  to  show  how  a  degree  of  intensity 
of  this  moral  sense  was  an  actual  and  historical  development  in 
the  American  context;  in  the  second  place,  we  have  in  James 
the  ultimate  and  rarefied  development  of  the  spiritual  antago- 
nism which  had  existed  for  centuries  between  the  rising  provin- 
cial civilization  and  the  richer  civilization  from  which  it  had 
broken  away,  an  antagonism  in  which  the  provincial  civilization 
met  the  obviously  superior  cultivation  of  the  parent  with  a  more 
or  less  typically  provincial  assertion  of  moral  superiority.  The 
same  theme  obsesses  Fenimore  Cooper  for  a  large  portion  of  his 
career,  though  conceived  in  terms  less  subtle;  it  is  the  same  an- 
tagonism which,  from  pre-Revolutionary  days  to  the  present,  has 
resulted  in  the  attempt,  unhealthy  in  its  self -consciousness  and  in 
its  neurotic  intensity,  to  create  a  literature  which  shall  be  utterly 
independent  of  that  of  England;  it  is  the  same  antagonism  which 
has  led  many  of  the  compatriots  of  Henry  James  to  disown  him 
as  a  foreigner  because  of  his  long  residence  abroad,  and  which 
led  his  western  contemporaries  of  the  intellectual  stamp  of  Clem 
ens  to  despise  James  in  turn  for  his  cultivation  and  artistry.  There 
is  further  evidence  that  James  conceived  this  moral  sense  to  be 
essentially  American,  moreover,  in  the  fact  that  the  moral  phe- 
nomenon and  its  attendant  dramatic  formula  alike  were  first  de- 
fined in  the  early  American  period  of  his  art,  and  that  they  were 
most  fully  and  richly  developed  in  his  last  great^  masterpieces, 
The  Ambassadors,  The  Wings  of  the  Dove,  and  The  Golden 

The  origin  of  this  moral  sense  may  be  given  briefly  and  with 


fair  certainty,  though  James  himself  nowhere  defines  it:  it  was 
the  product  of  generations  of  discipline  in  the  ethical  systems  of 
the  Roman  Catholic  and  Anglo-Catholic  Churches,  a  product 
which  subsisted  as  a  traditional  way  of  feeling  and  of  acting  after 
the  ideas  which  had  formed  it,  and  which,  especially  in  Europe 
and  before  the  settlement  of  America,  had  long  supported  it, 
had  ceased  to  be  understood,  or,  as  ideas,  valued.  The  Anglo- 
Catholic  Church  in  New  York  and  farther  south,  even  before 
the  Revolutionary  War,  tended  to  rely  upon  society  for  its  sup- 
port, rather  than  to  support  society;  it  was  the  external  sign  of 
the  respectability  of  a  class,  and  was  scarcely  an  evangelizing  or 
an  invigorating  force.  This  phenomenon  can  be  observed  in  the 
social  novels  of  Cooper,  who  views  it  benignantly;  and  it  is  men- 
tioned specifically  by  Mrs.  Wharton,  whose  approval  is  tempered 
with  comprehension,  in  the  opening  pages  of  The  Old  Maid.  In 
this  condensed  novel,  Mrs.  Wharton  writes  as  follows:  "The 
Ralstons  were  of  middle-class  English  stock.  They  had  not  come 
to  the  colonies  to  die  for  a  creed  but  to  live  for  a  bank  account. 
The  result  had*been  beyond  their  hopes,  and  their  religion  was 
tinged  by  their  success.  An  edulcorated  Church  of  England 
which,  under  the  conciliatory  name  of  the  'Episcopal  Church  of 
the  United  States  of  America/  left  out  the  coarser  allusions  in 
the  Marriage  Service,  slid  over  the  comminatory  passages  in  the 
Athanasian  Creed,  and  thought  it  more  respectful  to  say  'Our 
Father  Who'  than  'Which'  in  the  Lord's  Prayer,  was  exactly 
suited  to  the  spirit  of  compromise  whereon  the  Ralstons  had 
built  themselves  up.  There  was  in  all  the  tribe  the  same  in- 
stinctive recoil  from  new  religions  as  from  unaccounted-for  peo- 
ple. Institutional  to  the  core,  they  represented  the  conservative 
element  that  holds  new  societies  together  as  sea-plants  bind  the 
seashore/*  And  a  little  farther  on  she  writes  as  follows:  "The 
fourth  generation  of  Ralstons  had  nothing  left  in  the  way  of 
convictions  save  an  acute  sense  of  honor  in  private  and  business 
matters;  on  the  life  of  the  community  and  the  state  they  took 
their  daily  views  from  the  newspapers,  and  the  newspapers  they 
already  despised." 

The  moral  sense  in  question,  however,  might  have  been  a 


much  weaker  motive,  and  certainly  would  not  have  been  an  es- 
sentially American  motive,  had  it  not  been  intensified  through 
the  influence  of  New  England.  In  New  England,  the  Calvinistic 
theology  denied  the  freedom  of  the  will  and  the  efficaciousness 
of  good  works— that  is,  it  denied  the  importance  of  the  whole 
subject  of  morality,  at  least  in  formal  doctrine— but  at  the  same 
time,  as  a  result  of  its  inner  inconsistencies  and  of  the  practical 
struggles  of  the  Puritans,  as  I  have  shown  in  discussing  Haw- 
thorne, it  dramatized  and  intensified  the  moral  struggle  in  an 
extraordinary  manner.  Throughout  a  relatively  brief  period,  per- 
haps for  less  than  a  century,  the  moral  sense  of  New  England  as 
a  whole,  and  throughout  a  much  longer  period  the  moral  sense 
of  large  segments  of  New  England,  was  both  simplified  and  in- 
tensified by  Calvinistic  ideas,  at  the  same  time  that  these  ideas, 
because  of  their  inner  contradictions,  and  as  they  worked,  under 
the  emotional  pressure  of  the  period,  in  the  minds  of  the  subtler 
theologians,  were  literally  proving  self-destructive.  By  1730  the 
ideas  were  become  so  widely  ineffective  as  to  alarm  the  surviving 
faithful.  The  preachers  of  the  Great  Awakening  gave  them  a 
renewed  energy,  in  part  intellectual,  but  primarily  emotional,  but 
the  new  energy,  being  factitious,  the  result  of  the  impact  of  a 
new  rhetoric  rather  than  of  a  new  clarification,  was  short-lived. 
Edwards  gave  them  a  new  and  powerful  intellectual  adjustment, 
but  the  adjustment  was  among  the  ideas  themselves,  and  scarcely 
clarified  the  increasingly  obvious  discrepancies  between  the  ideas 
and  daily  life,  so  that  daily  life  moved  on  and  left  them.  The 
ideas  killed  themselves  off,  except  as  they  existed,  half-under- 
stood, in  the  remoter  village  congregations;  but  the  emotional 
energy,  the  New  England  conscience,  was  longer  in  dying.  It 
gave  the  Unitarian  Church  its  principal  claim  to  dignity;  it  per- 
sisted even  in  Emerson,  as  a  private  citizen,  at  the  same  time  that 
Emerson  was  preaching  pantheism,  equivalence,  and  surrender 
to  instinct. 

Now  except  for  the  Mormon  community  of  Utah,  New  Eng- 
land was  the  only  part  of  America  in  which  a  church  ever  exer- 
cised a  formative  and  governing  influence  upon  society,  so  that 
for  certain  periods  in  American  history  the  adjectives  Puritan 


and  New  England  are  practically  interchangeable.  Further,  New 
England  until  well  into  the  nineteenth  century  provided  the 
schoolmasters  for  most  of  the  United  States.  Van  Wyck  Brooks 
comments  upon  this  fact  in  The  Flowering  of  New  England;1 
he  says:  "Edward  Everett  Hale  relates  that  a  certain  French  in- 
vestigator, sent  by  Napoleon  III  to  study  American  education, 
found  that  virtually  every  teacher  in  the  West  and  South  had 
come  from  one  small  corner  of  the  couhtry,  either  Connecticut 
or  Massachusetts.  He  asked  Hale  to  explain  this  fact,  which  he 
said  was  unique  in  history.  Hale,  to  settle  the  question,  enquired 
of  a  leading  citizen  of  Massachusetts  how  many  young  people 
of  his  town,  when  they  left  school,  began  as  teachers.  'He  heard 
me/  says  Hale,  'with  some  impatience,  and  then  said,  'Why  all 
of  them,  of  course/* ' "  Brooks  cites  Emerson,  in  addition,  as  ad- 
vising "his  fellow-townsmen  to  manufacture  school-teachers  and 
make  them  the  best  in  the  world/'  If  one  has  ever  read  Satans- 
toe,  by  Fenimore  Cooper,  one  will  scarcely  forget  Jason  New- 
come,  the  New  England  schoolmaster  who  settled  in  New  York, 
nor  the  inability  of  Corny  Littlepage,  the  New  Yorker,  to  under- 
stand Jason's  belief  that  the  calling  of  the  schoolmaster  was  both 
respectable  and  enviable;  this  in  spite  of  the  fact  that  Jason  rep- 
resented the  New  England  conscience  in  a  degraded  form,  that 
of  the  caution  of  the  hypocrite. 

Further,  New  England  until  the  middle  of  the  nineteenth  cen- 
tury not  only  produced  at  least  a  fair  proportion  of  the  political 
talent  of.  the  nation,  but  she  produced  nearly  all  of  the  major 
literary  talent.  If  we  except  Poe,  a  Southerner,  whose  literary 
merit  nppears  to  the  present  writer  to  be  a  very  frail  delusion; 
it  we  except  Irving,  a  charming  writer,  but  a  minor  writer  at  best; 
if  we  except  Cooper,  a  great  writer,  and  a  New  Yorker  without 
mitigation;  we  have  but  two  great  New  York  talents  after  Freneau 
and  preceding  the  Civil  War:  W.  C.  Bryant,  a  New  Englander 
in  origin,  who  wrote  most  of  his  best  work  before  leaving  New 
England;  and  Herman  Melville,  whose  father  and  grandfather 
were  born  in  New  England,  whose  mother  came  of  an  old 

1  The  Flowering  of  New  England,  by  Van  Wyck  Brooks,  Button,  1936;  page 


New  York  family,  who  was  himself  born  and  raised  in  New 
York,  yet  all  of  whose  work  was  profoundly  colored  by  New  Eng- 
land, and  whose  greatest  work  was  an  allegorical  epic  of  New 
England.  The  influence  of  New  England  upon  the  spiritual  life 
of  the  nation  till  about  1850  or  1860  may  thus  be  conceded  to 
have  been  extremely  great;  as  a  matter  of  fact  it  continued  much 
later,  though  with  diminishing  force.  The  most  remarkable  evi- 
dence of  its  later  continuance  is  the  work  of  Henry  James,  an- 
other New  Yorker;  and  of  this  continuance  there  is  ample  objec- 
tive evidence,  in  such  characters  as  Lambert  Strether,  in  that 
unforgettable  legend  of  New  England,  The  Europeans,  perhaps 
the  most  beautiful  of  James's  minor  works,  and  omitted  from  the 
definitive  edition  for  reasons  that  must  always  remain  obscure  to 
me,  and  even  in  The  Bostonians— for  had  he  not  been  as  familiar 
with  the  New  England  conscience  as  with  his  own,  he  could 
scarcely  have  written  such  a  work— and  without  recourse  to  the 
historical  summary  and  ethical  analysis  of  which  this  essay  will 

For  practical  purposes,  the  New  England  moral  sense  was 
merely  an  intensification  of  that  of  New  York;  like  that  of  New 
York  it  derived  ultimately  from  the  pre-American  Catholic  dis- 
cipline, but  unlike  that  of  New  York,  or  at  least  of  English  New 
York,  it  had  experienced  a  Calvinistic  interlude,  which  intensi- 
fied it,  notwithstanding  the  fact  that  such  an  interlude,  rationally 
considered,  ought  to  have  destroyed  it  at  the  time,  and  notwith- 
standing the  additional  fact  that  the  interlude,  historically  con- 
sidered, ultimately  did  destroy  it,  but  long  afterward,  by  severing 
its  connection  with  the  one  and  only  source  of  its  nourishment, 
the  Aristotelian  ethical  tradition,  as  embodied  in  the  Catholic 
Church.  The  New  England  moral  sense,  then,  might  readily 
enough  be  imposed  in  some  measure  upon  the  New  Yorker,  and 
though  it  often  appeared  both  obnoxious  and  ludicrous  to  him, 
because  of  the  very  intensification  in  question,  as  we  see  it  ap- 
pearing in  Satanstoe,  in  The  Chainbearer,  and  in  The  Bos- 
tonians, it  none  the  less  influenced  and  strengthened  him  in  the 
long  run,  or  at  least  until  it  began  to  die  in  both  environments. 
Its  death  came  through  the  increase  of  the  temporal  separation 


from  its  source,  through  the  corrupting  influence  of  the  anti- 
moral  philosophy  of  Emersonian  and  other  romantics,  through 
dilution  with  the  post-war  inundation  of  uprooted  immigrants, 
through  the  reversion  of  influence  from  the  uprooted  Americans 
who  in  tremendous  numbers  had  broken  with  their  traditions 
and  moved  west,  through  the  inundation  of  new  and  imperfectly 
digested  scientific  knowledge,  and  through  the  influence  of  the 
new  financial  aristocracy  which  had  arisen  after  the  Civil  War 
with  great  rapidity  and  by  methods  in  most  cases  not  only  im- 
moral and  illegal  and  hence  corrupting  by  way  of  example,  but 
causing  a  tremendous  drain  upon  the  spiritual  life  of  the  nation 
through  the  material  impoverishment  of  great  multitudes. 

This  moral  sense,  as  it  existed  about  equally  in  James  and  in 
his  characters,  then,  was  a  fine,  but  a  very  delicate  perception, 
unsupported  by  any  clear  set  of  ideas,  and  functioning,  not  only 
in  minds  of  very  subtle  construction,  but  at  the  very  crisis  in 
history  at  which  it  was  doomed  not  only  to  be  almost  infinitely 
rarefied  but  finally  to  be  dissolved  in  air.  Since  James  conceived 
the  art  of  the^novel  primarily  in  terms  of  plot,  and  plot  almost 
wholly  in  terms  of  ethical  choice  and  of  its  consequences;  since 
he  raised  the  plotting  of  the  novel  to  a  level  of  seriousness  which 
it  had  never  before  attained  in  English;  since  all  intelligent  criti- 
cism of  James  is  resolved  inevitably  into  a  discussion  of  plot; 
this  moral  sense,  this  crisis  in  history,  will  prove,  I  believe,  to 
be  the  source  of  the  essential  problem  of  James's  art. 


James  displays  in  all  of  his  more  serious  work  an  unmistakable 
desire  to  allow  his  characters  unrestricted  freedom  of  choice  and 
to  develop  his  plots  out  of  such  choice  and  out  of  consequent 
acts  of  choice  to  which  the  initial  acts  may  lead.  Now  absolutely 
considered,  no  human  complex  is  ever  free  from  a  great  many 
elements  which  are  without  the  control  and  even  the  under- 
standing of  the  human  participants.  We  may  discover  this  fact 
very  simply  if  we  consider  for  a  moment  A  Portrait  of  a  Lady. 
We  may  fairly  say  that  it  is  chance  which  brings  Madame 


Merle  into  the  lite  of  Isabel  Archer:  at  any  rate,  the  entrance  of 
Madame  Merle  is  a  fact  in  itself  of  absolutely  no  ethical  ante- 
cedents or  significance.  On  the  other  hand,  we  may  say  that  the 
actions  of  Isabel  Archer  are  in  certain  respects  and  up  to  a  cer- 
tain point  determined:  she  is  first  of  all  human,  and  is  subject 
to  the  fundamental  necessities  of  humanity;  being  a  normal 
young  woman,  she  is  fairly  certain  to  marry,  for  example.  And 
if  she  marries,  she  will  in  the  matter  of  choice  be  limited  by 
chance— that  is,  she  will  have  to  choose  from  among  the  men 
whom  she  happens  to  know,  even  if  we  suppose  it  to  be  within 
her  power  to  attract  any  man  whom  she  desires.  Her  choice 
within  these  limits  may  in  a  sense  be  said  to  be  determined— as 
perhaps  it  actually  was— by  a  temperamental  bent  of  her  own 
which  she  fails  to  understand  and  consider,  or  by  the  facts  of 
her  personal  history,  which  result  in  certain  forms  of  knowledge 
and  certain  forms  of  ignorance,  and  which  may  consequently 
lead  her  to  judge  a  situation  on  the  basis  of  imperfect  knowl- 
edge. The  initial  tragic  error  of  Hyacinth  Robinson,  of  The  Prin- 
cess Casamassima,  for  example,  is  conceived  as  a  free  choice 
made  in  ignorance  of  the  essential  knowledge  which  would  have 
prevented  it;  similarly,  Mrs.  Wharton's  finest  short  work,  Bun- 
ner  Sisters,  is  conceived  as  a  sequence  of  steps  taken  by  the  two 
protagonists  into  tragic  knowledge,  each  step  being  made  freely 
and  apparently  wisely  on  the  basis  of  the  imperfect  knowledge 
held  at  the  time  it  is  taken. 

Elements  of  this  sort  are  what  we  call  the  given  facts  of  the 
plot:  they  are  the  ineliminable  facts  of  character  and  of  initial 
situation.  We  have  a  certain  group  of  particularized  individuals 
in  juxtaposition;  the  particularity  is  destiny,  the  juxtaposition 
chance.  But  the  understanding  and  the  will  may  rise  in  some 
measure  superior  to  destiny  and  to  chance,  and  when  they  do 
so,  we  have  human  victory;  or  they  may  make  the  effort  and 
fail,  in  which  case  we  have  tragedy;  or  the  failure  having  oc- 
curred, there  may  be  a  comprehension  of  the  failure  and  a  willed 
adjustment  to  it,  in  which  case  we  have  the  combination  of 
tragedy  and  victory.  It  is  this  combination,  the  representation 
of  which  Henry  James  especially  strives  to  achieve, 


Some  novelists— Defoe,  for  example,  or  Hardy— make  a  con- 
scious effort  to  give  the  human  participant  the  smallest  possible 
freedom  of  play;  James  endeavors  to  give  him  the  greatest  pos- 
sible freedom,  and  he  is  so  successful  in  the  effort  that  in  reading 
one  of  his  better  novels  one  is  conscious  almost  exclusively  of 
the  problem  of  ethical  choice. 

Now  the  norm  of  human  experience,  in  the  matter  of  unham: 
pered  choice,  is  probably  somewhere  between  the  extremes  of 
Moll  Flanders  and  of  Isabel  Archer,  and  the  novelist  who  goes 
to  one  extreme  or  the  other  simply  refuses  to  consider  intelli- 
gently certain  aspects  of  human  life.  There  is  possibly  greater 
educative  value— there  are  wider  ethical  implications— in  suffer- 
ing the  consequences  of  an  ill-judged  but  unhampered  choice 
than  in  any  other  department  of  experience;  on  the  other  hand, 
the  person  whose  choice  is  normally  unhampered  may  often  ap- 
pear to  have  an  abominably  facile  existence  in  the  eyes  of  him 
whose  life  is  an  unbroken  and  unavailing  endurance  of  neces 
sity,  whose  primary  virtue  must  of  necessity  be  fortitude. 

James  sought  in  so  far  as  possible,  it  would  seem,  to  create 
the  illusion  of  unhampered  choice,  he  sought  to  study  the  ethi- 
cal judgment  of  his  time  and  nation  in  the  purest  essence  to 
which  he  could  distill  it.  This  I  believe  to  have  been  a  limita- 
tion, but  of  the  two  alternative  limitations,  if  one  is  to  choose 
one  or  the  other  extreme,  distinctly  the  lesser  evil.  Of  the  limita- 
tion as  such,  I  shall  have  nothing  further  to  say;  but  it  was  also 
the  source  of  obscurity,  and  the  nature  of  this  obscurity,  and  the 
nature  of  James's  struggle  to  master  it,  will  be  the  subject  of  this 

James  was  abetted  in  his  effort  to  isolate  the  moral  problem 
by  the  defects  of  his  own  knowledge:  although  he  possessed  the 
most  refined  ethical  sensibility  of  his  period,  and  the  sensibility 
the  most  profoundly  American,  his  education  and  background 
were  such  that  he  knew  very  little  of  American  life  and  man- 
ners. With  the  American  abroad  he  was  familiar;  with  the 
travelled  American  on  his  return,  he  was  not  unfamiliar;  and 
one  could  extend  the  catalogue  to  a  few  other  particulars.  But 
he  knew  nothing  of  American  economic  life,  a  fact  which  he 

recognized  and  deplored;  and  he  knew  next  to  nothing  of  the 
daily  detail,  of  the  manners,  of  any  single  and  reasonably  repre- 
sentative American  class  in  its  native  environment,  a  fact  which 
will  become  abundantly  obvious  if  one  compares  any  of  his 
novels  whatever  to  The  Age  of  Innocence,  by  Mrs.  Wharton. 
His  own  childhood,  under  the  guidance  of  his  elegantly  bohe- 
mian  father,  familiarized  him  with  an  intellectual  class,  but  with 
a  class  consistent  only  in  its  intellectuality,  and  composed  of  in- 
dividuals largely  detached,  as  he  saw  them,  from  their  social 
backgrounds— his  social  experience  was  essentially  amorphous. 

In  one  of  his  letters,2  he  addresses  a  correspondent  as  follows: 
"I  sympathize  even  less  with  your  protest  against  the  idea  that 
it  takes  an  old  civilization  to  set  a  novelist  in  motion— a  proposi- 
tion that  seems  to  me  so  true  as  to  be  a  truism.  It  is  on  manners, 
customs,  usages,  habits,  forms,  upon  all  these  things  matured 
and  established,  that  a  novelist  lives— they  are  the  very  stuff 
his  work  is  made  of."  James  was  no  doubt  right  in  the  general 
proposition,  for  a  novel  requires  bulk,  and  the  bulk  can  be  com- 
posed only  of  a  scrutiny  of  the  daily  detail  of  life;  but  the  notion 
that  America  did  not  offer  any  body  of  manners  worth  examining 
was  false,  as  the  work  of  Mrs.  Wharton,  again,  to  go  no  further, 
amply  shows— James  was  simply  insufficiently  familiar  with  his 
country  or  insufficiently  observant  of  it. 

In  such  a  book  as  The  Age  of  Innocence,  Mrs.  Wharton  shows 
us  a  group  of  characters  whose  actions  are  governed  according 
to  the  same  ethical  history  and  principles  which  I  have  men- 
tioned in  connection  with  James.  But  the  characters  are  living 
in  a  society  cognate  and  coterminous  with  those  principles;  the 
society  with  its  customs  and  usages,  is  the  external  form  of  the 
principles.  Now  the  customs  and  usages  may  become  unduly 
externalized,  and  when  they  appear  so  to  become,  Mrs.  Wharton 
satirizes  them;  but  in  the  main  they  represent  the  concrete  as- 
pect of  the  abstract  principles  of  behavior.  Thus  when  Newland 
Archer  and  the  Countess  Olenska  are  on  the  point  of  eloping, 
one  of  the  strongest  incentives  to  their  withdrawal  is  the  fact 
that  they  will  be  forced  into  a  mode  of  life  of  a  bohemian  and 
a  Letters,  edited  by  Percy  Lubbock,  Vol.  I,  page  72. 


disorderly  sort  which  must  inevitably  degrade  their  love  in  their 
own  eyes;  and  this  incentive  is  essentially  serious,  for  the  usages 
which  they  are  unwilling  to  abandon  are  the  embodiment  of 
serious  principles;  whereas  the  usages  which  they  are  unwilling 
to  adopt  represent  a  weak  falling  away  from  those  principles. 
In  this  way  Mrs.  Wharton  gives  greater  precision  to  her  moral 
issues  than  James  is  able  to  achieve,  for  James  endeavors,  as  I 
have  said,  to  isolate  from  the  manners  which  might  have  given 
it  concreteness  a  moral  sense  which  is  already  isolated  by  history 
from  the  ideas  which  gave  rise  to  it.  Ellen  Glasgow,  in  such 
novels  as  They  Stooged  to  Folly  and  Virginia,  carries  the  pro- 
cedure of  Mrs.  Wharton  a  step  farther,  and  by  the  measure  of 
that  step  loses  in  seriousness:  she  shows  her  characters  so  domi- 
nated by  a  system  of  manners,  or  so  emotionally,  so  automati- 
cally, in  rebellion  against  a  system  of  manners,  as  to  be  essen- 
tially unconscious  of  their  motives  and  so  determined.  She  does 
not  give  an  untrue  picture  of  life,  for  there  are  more  people  in 
the  world  resembling  Virginia  and  her  husband  than  resembling 
Newland  Archer;  but  she  gives  a  less  complete  picture  of  human 
nature,  for  Newland  Archer  is  a  man  of  intelligence  as  well  as 
of  sensibility. 

In  comparison  with  a  Jamesian  character,  however,  Archer 
and  Ellen  Olenska  are  governed  by  circumstance;  the  Jamesian 
character  has  greater  freedom,  in  part  because  James  couldn't 
help  it,  and  in  part  because  he  would  no  doubt  have  wished  it 
anyway.  The  moral  issue,  then,  since  it  is  primarily  an  American 
affair,  is  freed  in  most  of  the  Jamesian  novels,  and  in  all  of  the 
greatest,  from  the  compulsion  of  a  code  of  manners. 

The  moral  issue  is  also  freed  from  economic  necessity.  Money 
is  never  an  impelling  motive  in  a  Jamesian  novel ;  that  is,  no  one 
is  forced  to  choose,  as  Moll  Flanders  was  forced  to  choose,  be- 
tween crime  and  starvation.  On  the  other  hand,  a  lack  of  suffi- 
cient funds  to  live  in  luxury  is  a  frequent  motive  to  baseness 
among  the  corrupt  characters;  Lambert  Strether,  in  The  Am- 
bassadors, surmounts  this  temptation  among  others.  The  lack  of 
money  may  be  sufficiently  great  to  be  a  temptation;  but  it  is  never 
sufficiently  great  to  be  compelling.  Isabel  Archer  is  benevolently 

provided  with  funds  after  her  story  opens,  with  the  express  pur- 
pose that  her  action  shall  thereafter  be  unhampered. 

This  necessity,  in  the  Jamesian  art,  of  seeing  to  it  that  the 
leading  characters  shall  be  well-heeled,  leads  to  some  curious 
paradoxes.  Christopher  Newman,  of  The  American,,  for  exam- 
ple, is  a  perfect  embodiment  of  the  Jamesian  conscience,  yet  he 
is  a  man  of  fabulous  wealth,  which  he  has  acquired  himself  and 
in  a  very  few  years,  immediately  following  the  Civil  War,  and 
very  largely  in  western  railroads,  and  he  is,  in  addition,  a  citizen 
of  San  Francisco— he  is,  in  brief,  a  colleague  of  Leland  Stanford 
and  of  Collis  P.  Huntington.  James  conceives  nearly  all  of  his 
American  financiers  in  the  same  terms,  until  he  comes  to  write 
The  Ivory  Tower,  a  book  in  which  an  intense  suspicion,  never 
supported  by  exact  knowledge,  of  the  evil  of  American  financial 
life,  of  its  actually  corrupting  effect  on  the  characters  of  the  par- 
ticipants, is  the  explicit  theme. 

If  we  demand  of  a  novelist  that  he  portray  a  society  accurately 
as  regards  all  its  externals,  this  contradiction  in  Jamesian  charac- 
ter would  be  all  but  fatal  to  his  art.  We  could  justify  it  to  a  cer- 
tain extent  by  saying  that  there  were  in  the  eastern  United  States 
individuals  of  moderate  wealth  either  inherited  or  otherwise  hon- 
estly acquired;  that  James  erred  only  in  the  unnecessary  exag- 
geration of  the  wealth  of  his  characters,  in  attributing  to  a  man 
of  the  character,  let  us  say,  of  an  Adams  or  a  Phillips,  the  wealth 
of  a  Sage  or  a  Vanderbilt,  in  a  period  in  which  it  is  notorious 
that  such  wealth  could  not  be  decently  accumulated.  We  might 
justify  him  to  a  certain  extent  by  pleading  the  indisputable  fact 
that  many  men  who  are  notoriously  unscrupulous  in  matters  of 
finance  or  of  politics  preserve  the  domestic  virtues  intact;  though 
such  an  apology  in  the  background  of  The  Golden  Eowl  would 
necessarily  mitigate  our  sense  of  the  tragedy  of  Adam  Verver. 

Such  apologies  would  up  to  a  certain  point  be  sound,  although 
they  would  certainly  be  insufficient.  The  real  objection  to  them, 
however,  is  that  they  would  be  irrelevant;  they  would  be  offered 
in  defense  of  a  misconception  of  the  Jamesian  art.  For  James  is 
definitely  not  examining  the  whole  of  a  society;  he  is  examin- 
ing the  mathematical  center  of  a  society— the  ethical  conscious- 


ness  of  a  society— and  he  is  examining  nothing  more.  For  the 
rest,  so  far  as  his  Americans  are  concerned,  he  is  employing  a 
fictive  convention,  the  convention  of  fabulous  wealth  fabulously 
acquired  and  resulting  in  the  freedom  of  the  possessor  from 
necessity,  in  order  to  isolate  the  ethical  consciousness  in  question 
more  perfectly  than  it  is  to  be  found  isolated  in  life.  In  this  re- 
spect, his  art  approaches  that  of  the  allegorist,  of  the  symbolic 
poet:  it  is  an  art  not  of  inclusion,  but  of  representative  and  es- 
sential selection. 

We  find,  then,  that  James  succeeded  to  a  remarkable  degree 
in  separating  the  problem  of  ethical  choice  from  the  influence  of 
ethical  habit  and  of  social  pressure  as  they  appear  in  the  guise 
of  manners  or  of  economic  necessity.  The  consequences  of  this 
success  remain  to  be  seen. 


James,  then,  was  unequipped  to  deal  adequately  with  any  major 
aspect  of  Arfierican  manners,  yet  he  was  a  novelist  of  manners 
by  natural  gift  and  by  his  own  admission;  he  was  furthermore 
profoundly  American  in  character.  The  problem  was  solved 
naturally  by  the  facts  of  his  personal  history:  he  dealt  with  the 
American,  uprooted  from  his  native  usages,  and  confronted  with 
the  alien  usages  of  a  subtle  and  ancient  society. 

In  the  early  works  and  in  some  of  the  minor  works  of  later 
years,  the  confrontation  leads  to  curious  results.  Christopher 
Newman  may  serve  again  as  the  illustration:  there  is  not  only 
the  paradox  of  his  possessing  a  virgin  New  England  conscience 
along  with  a  fortune  acquired  in  western  railroads,  but  there  is 
the  additional  paradox  of  his  possessing  the  gentle  flexibility  of 
a  New  England  or  New  York  aristocrat  at  his  best,  along  with  a 
social  naivet£  that  irritates  the  Bellegardes.  James  in  his  effort  to 
indicate  a  part  of  the  basis  for  this  irritation  writes  certain  scenes 
in  which  Newman  converses  with  a  rural  and  moralizing  gar- 
rulity that  puts  one  strongly  in  mind  of  Natty  Bumppo. 

In  the  more  mature  works,  the  relationship  is,  of  course,  stated 
far  more  subtly.  The  Ververs  are  gentle  and  cultivated  people, 

who  are  circumvented  by  persons  a  shade  less  gentle  and  a  shade 
more  cultivated,  the  fine  degrees  of  difference,  however,  being 
firmly  indicative  of  an  essential  cleavage  in  character.  Lambert 
Strether  is  from  the  outset  of  The  Ambassadors  a  person  of  great 
astuteness  of  perception  as  well  as  of  unusual  character;  Chad 
Newsome,  the  character  in  this  particular  novel  most  profoundly 
affected  by  the  contact  with  Europe,  starts  out  as  a  crude  and 
unformed  boy,  his  crudity  being  largely  accounted  for  by  his  age. 
The  difference  is  most  obvious,  perhaps,  in  the  case  of  Isabel 
Archer:  she  is,  from  the  beginning,  the  social  equal  of  any  per- 
son whom  she  encounters;  but  she  is  inexperienced,  and  her 
exposure  to  Europe  is  an  exposure  to  an  unexpectedly  rich  and 
extraordinary  experience,  which  confuses  her. 

Nevertheless,  from  the  beginning  to  the  end  of  James,  certain 
major  relationships  are  apparent. 

There  is  the  American  who  is  subjected  to  the  European  in- 
fluence and  enriched  by  it;  as  examples,  we  may  cite  Ralph 
Touchett  of  the  Portrait,  and  Strether  and  Maria  Gostrey  of  The 
Ambassadors.  There  is  the  American  who  in  the  process  of  be- 
coming so  enriched,  suffers  a  dissolution  of  his  moral  nature, 
and  who  becomes  merely  a  more  or  less  conscious  scoundrel:  as 
extreme  examples  of  this  type,  we  may  cite  Osmund  and  Mme. 
Merle  of  the  Portrait;  as  an  example  of  a  less  conscious  type  of 
corruption,  we  may  cite  Christina  Light,  especially  as  she  ap- 
pears in  Roderick  Hudson,  less  obviously  as  she  appears  in  The 
Princess  Casamassima;  Strether  appears  of  this  type  to  the  New- 
somes  in  Massachusetts;  Chad  Newsome  appears  of  this  type  at 
the  outset  of  The  Ambassadors,  later  appears  of  the  admirable 
type  of  Touchett,  and  at  the  end  remains  ambiguous  and  unre- 
solved, a  question  for  the  future,  in  the  eyes  of  the  reader  and 
of  Strether  alike.  There  is  the  American  who,  in  the  process  of 
acquiring  this  valuable  experience,  is  betrayed  by  another  charac- 
ter, whether  American  or  native  European,  who  has  too  much 
of  it,  or  conversely  and  proportionately  too  little  moral  sense: 
such  characters  are  Maggie  Verver  and  her  father  in  The  Golden 
Bowl,  Milly  Theale  in  The  Wings  of  the  Dove,  Isabel  Archer 
in  the  Portrait,  and  (if  we  suspect  a  trifle  the  worst  of  Chad 

Newsome)  Lambert  Strether  in  The  Ambassadors.  This  formula 
of  betrayal  is  the  tragic  formula  in  the  Jamesian  novel :  in  a  sub- 
plot of  The  Ambassadors,  there  is  (but  only,  again,  if  we  suspect 
the  worst  of  Chad  Newsome)  a  curious  variation  of  it,  in 
which  Chad,  who  has  been  enriched  and  so  (perhaps)  corrupted 
through  his  experience  with  Mme.  de  Vionnet,  appears  (per- 
haps) likely  at  the  end  of  the  book  to  betray  Mme.  de  Vionnet, 
who,  though  she  is  a  European  and  though  she  has  displayed 
certain  comprehensible  human  weaknesses,  is  a  sympathetic 
character.  There  are  the  Americans  who  are  essentially  too  pro- 
vincial, and  who  are  frequently  too  coarse,  to  be  subject  either 
to  the  benefits  or  to  the  dangers  of  the  European  experience: 
these  individuals  are  sometimes  merely  dull  vulgarians,  like  Jim 
Pocock  of  The  Ambassadors;  they  are  sometimes  comic  but  sym- 
pathetic figures  like  Waymarsh  of  The  Ambassadors,  or  like 
Henrietta  Stackpole  of  the  Portrait;  they  are  sometimes  admira- 
ble in  a  very  limited  sense,  but  invidious  in  the  long  run  to  the 
decencies,  through  their  very  limitations  and  a  kind  of  neurotic 
intensity,  like  Mrs.  Newsome  and  her  daughter,  of  The  Am- 
bassadors; more  rarely,  like  Caspar  Goodwood,  of  the  Portrait, 
they  have  a  kind  of  tragic  simplicity  of  directness  in  a  world 
essentially  fluid,  evasive,  and  incomprehensible,  at  least  as  re- 
gards human  motive.  Goodwood  is  tragic  because,  though  im- 
perceptive,  he  has  high  character  and  high  intelligence,  and 
because  he  unfailingly  and  in  spite  of  constant  disappointment 
expects  human  beings  to  act  intelligently;  Henrietta  Stackpole 
has  the  same  expectation,  but  lacking  so  fine  an  intelligence  or 
so  high  a  character  (though  of  course  she  is  a  very  good  soul  in 
her  fashion)  she  is  necessarily  comic.  The  character  immune  to 
European  influence  is  never  central  to  the  Jamesian  plot,  and 
seldom  alters  or  develops  to  any  serious  degree  in  the  course  of 
the  book,  though  things  may  happen  to  him. 

In  the  British  novels  of  the  middle  period,  the  same  precarious 
balance  between  character  and  sensibility  is  studied,  and  from 
the  same  hypersensitive  American  point  of  view,  in  spite  of  there 
being  no  American  characters.  In  The  Tragic  Muse,  the  solid 
qualities  and  limitations  of  the  British  upper  class  replace  the 


narrower  and  more  intense  moral  qualities  of  the  American  heri- 
tage; Dormer  and  Sherringham  attempt  to  build  a  richer  life  on 
this  foundation,  Sherringham  to  fail,  Dormer  presumably  to  suc- 
ceed—the book,  though  it  offers  a  handful  of  unforgettable  char- 
acters, collapses  structurally  as  a  result  of  its  double  plot,  so  that 
one's  recollection  of  the  manners,  or  the  medium  in  which  the 
characters  move,  is  likely  to  be  more  clear  than  the  morality,  or 
the  form  of  their  motion.  In  The  Awkward  Age,  to  select  an- 
other example,  Nanda,  Mitchy,  and  Mr.  Longdon,  the  only  char- 
acters possessing  sufficient  moral  quality  to  rely  in  some  measure 
upon  it,  are  all  more  or  less  the  victims  of  persons  unable  to 
distinguish  between  morals  and  manners,  of  persons  so  external- 
ized as  to  be  essentially  corrupt.  In  the  British  novels  in  general, 
I  should  say,  and  especially  in  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  this  an- 
tithesis of  morals  and  manners  appears  less  clearly  than  in  The 
American;  in  fact,  in  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  the  morality  is 
largely  an  isolated  question,  and  stands  only  in  the  vaguest  sense 
in  the  usual  relationship  to  manners. 

Toward  the  end  of  his  life,  in  The  Ivory  Tower,  James  re- 
versed the  formula.  He  appeared  to  be  troubled  by  the  corrupt- 
ing influence  of  American  financial  life  on  those  who  were  not 
subjected  to  a  civilizing  influence.  In  this  book,  he  employs  as 
hero  a  Europeanized  American,  Graham  Fielder,  a  man  of  the 
same  admirable  type  as  Ralph  Touchett,  but  of  much  less  force 
of  character.  Fielder  had  been  raised  in  Europe,  apart  from  the 
financial  life  in  America;  he  was  thus  the  heir  in  some  measure 
and  perhaps  in  a  diluted  form  of  the  earlier  American  moral 
sense  as  well  as  of  European  cultivation.  James  brings  him  into 
contact  with  the  corrupt  financial  life  of  America  early  in  the 
twentieth  century,  shows  him  defeated  in  the  realm  of  action  by 
an  exemplar  of  this  life,  but  rising  superior  to  his  adversary 
morally.  This  form  of  corruption  had,  of  course,  been  thriving 
throughout  James's  career,  and  James  had  shown  little  suspicion 
of  its  existence;  even  in  The  Ivory  Tower  he  does  not  know  ex- 
actly what  form  the  corruption  takes,  but  merely  feels  its  pres- 
ence, as  a  kind  of  social  atmosphere.  However,  the  same  corrup- 
tion in  the  background  of  The  Ambassadors—the  same  stupid 


corruption  which  was  sufficient  to  drive  Henry  Adams  out  of 
political  life— lends  a  certain  seriousness  to  the  choice  which 
confronts  Chad  Newsome,  the  choice  between  the  life  of  a  busi- 
nessman in  America  and  (since  he  lacks  both  the  genius  and 
the  character  of  a  Henry  Adams)  the  life  of  a  cultivated  idler 
in  Europe. 

In  general,  however,  the  subject  of  the  characteristic  Jamesian 
novel  is  the  influence  of  the  cultivation  of  sensibility  (in  other 
words,  the  experience  of  contact  with  European  manners)  upon 
moral  character  in  a  pure  or  isolated  form  (that  is,  upon  the 
American  moral  sense,  divorced  from  any  body  of  American 
manners).  The  implications  of  this  relationship  of  morality  to 
sensibility  are  of  the  most  profound  and  the  most  general  sort, 
in  spite  of  the  fact  that  the  concrete  terms  giving  rise  to  the  im- 
plications are  relatively  limited.  It  is  obvious,  then,  that  James  is 
much  more  than  a  mere  portrayer  of  the  American  abroad;  his 
work  partakes  in  a  considerable  measure  of  the  allegorical  char- 
acter of  the  work  of  Hawthorne.  The  principal  dangers  inherent 
in  the  subject  and  in  the  method  we  shall  now  examine. 


Edmund  Wilson  in  an  essay  in  The  Hound  and  Horn3  has  de- 
fended the  theory  that  The  Turn  of  the  Screw  should  be  re- 
garded not  as  a  ghost  story  but  as  a  study  of  hallucination.  The 
story  is  told  by  the  governess,  who  is  to  be  regarded  either  as 
the  victim  of  the  hallucinations  or  as  the  observer  of  the  ghosts 
and  their  machinations.  If  we  assume  that  the  children  did  not 
see  the  ghosts— and  we  have  only  the  word  of  the  governess  that 
they  did  see  them— their  every  action  becomes  innocent  and 
commonplace  except,  toward  the  end,  as  they  are  terrified  by  the 
unbalanced  behavior  of  the  governess.  There  are  a  few  small 

8  The  Ambiguity  of  Henry  James,  by  Edmund  Wilson;  The  Hound  and 
Horn,  VII-3,  April- June,  1934.  A  greatly  extended  version  of  this  essay,  which 
I  had  not  read  till  the  present  volume  was  ready  for  the  printer,  appears  in  The 
Triple  Thinkers,  by  Edmund  Wilson,  Harcourt,  Brace  and  Co.,  1938.  My  essay 
and  the  enlarged  essay  of  Mr.  Wilson  deal  with  many  of  the  same  problems, 
but  from  very  different  points  of  view. 


difficulties  of  interpretation  either  way,  but  Mr.  Wilson's  hy- 
pothesis strikes  the  present  writer  as  more  plausible  than  the 
popular  one.  As  Mr.  Wilson  points  out,  the  story  is  not  published 
among  the  ghost  stories  in  the  collected  edition;  there  is  another 
story,  The  Marriages,  which  resembles  it  in  method  if  we  as- 
sume the  truth  of  his  theory;  resembles  it  in  the  fact  that  this 
story  is  likewise  told  from  the  point  of  view  of  an  unbalanced 
girl,  except  that  in  this  case  the  clue  to  the  interpretation  is  given 
explicitly  at  the  end. 

For  the  purposes  of  this  essay,  Mr.  Wilson's  interpretation 
need  not  be  granted,  though  I  personally  agree  with  it.  But  the 
story  if  so  interpreted— even  if  so  interpreted  only  for  a  moment 
—has  great  illustrative  value.  For  in  the  story  so  interpreted,  the 
governess  constructs  out  of  a  series  of  innocent  and  unrelated 
acts,  a  consistent  and  coherent  theory  of  corrupt  action  and  a 
very  intense  emotional  reaction  to  the  theory.  The  gap  between 
rational  motive  and  resulting  state  of  mind  is  so  wide  as  to  in- 
clude every  item  in  the  story:  for  this  reason,  the  governess  must 
be  insane.  There  is  more  than  one  other  Jamesian  effort,  how- 
ever, in  which  the  margin  of  unmotivated,  or  obscure,  feeling 
is  nearly  as  wide,  and  apparently  without  James's  realizing  it; 
there  is  almost  invariably  at  least  a  narrow  margin  of  obscurity; 
and  the  entire  drama  of  the  typical  Jamesian  novel  is  the  effort 
of  some  character  or  group  of  characters  to  reduce  this  margin, 
to  understand  what  is  going  on. 

Joseph  Warren  Beach4  describes  The  Sacred  Fount  in  the  fol- 
lowing passage:  "It  consists  of  a  series  of  discussions  at  a  week- 
end party  concerning  the  sentimental  relationships  of  certain 
men  and  women  present.  Not  a  single  incident  is  brought  into 
the  narrative  more  important  than  the  intimate  look  of  two  per- 
sons observed  together  in  an  arbor,  a  gentleman's  appearance  of 
age,  or  the  waxing  and  waning  of  a  lady's  wit.  The  discussions 
are  held  largely  between  'me'  and  'Mrs.  Briss';  and  the  climax  of 
the  story  is  found  simply  in  the  most  extended  of  our  debates, 
late  at  night  in  the  hospitable  drawing-room.  Each  one  of  us  has 

*  The  Method  of  Henry  James,  by  Joseph  Warren  Beach;  Yale  University 
Press,  1918,  pages  43-4. 

developed  an  elaborate  hypothesis  to  account  for  certain  social 
phenomena,— phenomena  whose  actuality  may  itself  be  brought 
in  question,  being  so  much  an  affair  of  the  interpretation  (if  not 
the  imaginative  invention)  of  appearance.  T  hold  that  the  pres- 
ent wit  and  competence  of  Percy  Long— heretofore  a  dull  and 
unskillful  member  of  society— have  had  to  be  paid  for  by  the 
woman  who  loves  him;  and  that  this  accounts  for  the  nervous 
manner  and  peculiar  tactics  of  Mae  Server,  who  has  lost  her  for- 
mer cleverness  and  is  trying  to  conceal  the  fact.  On  the  same 
grounds  I  explain  to  myself  the  blooming  of  Mrs.  Brissenden— 
my  opponent  in  this  debate— at  the  expense  of  'poor  Briss/  who 
daily  presents  an  older  face  to  the  world.  Toor  Briss/  like  Mae 
Server,  has  had  to  tap  the  'sacred  fount'  the  limited  source  of 
vital  energy,  in  order  to  give  abundant  life  to  the  one  he  loves. 
Following  this  clue,  it  appears  to  me  that  Percy  Long  and  'Mrs. 
Briss/  conscious  of  the  similarity  of  their  position,  have  formed 
a  tacit  league  for  concealment  and  the  defense  of  their  common 
interest.  And  again  'poor  Briss'  and  Mae  Server  seem  to  have 
been  drawn  together  by  a  sense  of  their  community  and  a  com- 
mon need  for  sympathy.  It  was  Mrs.  Briss  in  the  first  place  who 
helped  me  to  my  theory.  But  it  is  obvious  that,  when  she  comes 
to  realize  how  far  I  may  carry  its  application,  she  must  deny 
these  facts  and  make  her  own  independent  interpretation  of  the 
facts  she  acknowledges.  And  Mrs.  Briss  is  a  most  ingenious  and 
plausible  debater.  So  that  T  am  obliged  to  hurry  away  from  her 
neighborhood  in  order  to  maintain  my  own  view  of  the  facts. 
And  so,  in  the  end,  the  reader  is  left  provided  with  two  complete 
sets  of  interpretations  of  a  group  of  more  or  less  hypothetical 
relations.  .  .  ." 

This  is,  I  believe,  a  fair  summary;  it  comes  from  one  of  the 
most  enthusiastic  admirers  of  James,  and,  so  far  as  my  knowledge 
of  Jamesian  criticism  extends,  from  his  ablest  critic,  albeit  from  a 
critic  with  whom  I  frequently  disagree.  Yet  we  have  here  a  sum- 
mary of  a  state  of  mind  that  verges  on  madness,  and  the  novel 
was  not  ultimately  included  by  the  author  in  the  definitive  edi- 
tion of  his  works. 

Similarly,  one  may  fairly  ask  whether  Fleba  Vetch,  of  The 


Spoils  of  Poynton,  does  not  do  something  similar  to  what  the 
governess  does  in  The  Turn  of  the  Screw,  though  in  the  case  of 
Fleda,  of  course,  it  would  be  moral  hysteria,  if  such  a  phrase 
may  be  used,  rather  than  madness.  Fleda  has  it  in  her  power 
to  break  the  engagement  to  marry  another  woman  of  the  man 
whom  she  loves  and  who  loves  her;  the  rival  does  not  appear 
to  be  so  much  in  love  with  him  as  with  his  perquisites— in 
fact,  it  is  the  rival  herself  who  threatens  to  break  if  certain 
demands  are  not  granted  within  a  limited  time,  and  her  atti- 
tude appears  to  be  one  primarily  of  bad-tempered  selfishness. 
Fleda,  notwithstanding,  constructs  a  moral  obligation  out  of  this 
situation,  constructs  it  so  deviously  and  subtly  that  it  would  be 
utterly  lost  in  summary  and  is  sufficiently  elusive  in  the  text, 
enforces  the  compliance,  and  assures  the  marriage,  thereby,  pre- 
sumably, ruining  her  own  life,  her  lover's,  and  that  of  her  lover's 
mother.  The  attitude  of  the  lover,  Owen  Gereth,  never  becomes 
clear:  Mrs.  Gereth  appears  to  assume  that  it  is,  like  Fleda's,  one 
of  unwholesome  moral  refinement;  when  Owen  discusses  the 
situation  with  Fleda,  nevertheless,  he  appears  primarily  hurt  and 
bewildered,  so  that  the  reader  is  free  to  wonder  whether  he 
simply  performed  a  quixotic  act  to  win  Fleda's  esteem  in  default 
of  her  hand;  Fleda,  however,  in  a  passage  which  is  analytical 
rather  than  emotional,  deduces  that  he  was  repelled  by  his  some- 
what spoiled  fiancee,  when,  as  the  result  of  a  check,  her  action 
became  vulgar  and  unpleasant,  and  so  imagined  himself  in  love 
with  Fleda,  but  that  when  the  check  was  removed  and  her  charm 
automatically  returned,  he  was  again  moved  to  admire  her  and 
forget  Fleda— an  hypothesis  which  would  render  Fleda's  tragedy 
a  waste  of  passion  in  a  vulgar  cause,  though  of  this  Fleda,  as  well 
as  James,  appears  to  be  unaware.  In  any  event,  Owen  remains 
at  the  end  of  the  story  an  unresolved  figure,  a  group  of  at  least 
three  mutually  repellent  hypotheses;  the  value  of  Fleda's  action 
is  unjudged— Fleda  herself  was  ready  to  surrender  and  in  fact 
tried  to  surrender  when  it  was  already  too  late  and  Owen  was 
married,  but  then  apparently  returned  later  to  her  original  view 
of  the  situation— so  that  Fleda  represents  a  pair  of  alternative 
hypotheses.  The  result  of  this  uncertainty  is  that  we  do  not  have 


a  tragic  moral  victory,  in  which  the  protagonist  judges,  makes  a 
sacrifice,  and  saves  her  soul;  nor  do  we  have  a  tragic  defeat,  in 
which  she  makes  an  unjustified  choice  and  is  judged  by  the 
author— that  is,  suffers  the  consequences.  We  have  rather  an 
intense  situation,  developed  with  the  utmost  care,  so  far  as  the 
succeeding  facts  and  states  of  mind  are  concerned,  but  remain- 
ing at  nearly  all  times  and  certainly  at  the  end  uncertain  as  to 
significance.  Fleda's  attitude  is  never  resolved;  nor  is  ours;  but 
the  experience  has  been  intense,  and  as  we  have  not  understood 
it,  we  cannot  but  feel  it  to  be  essentially  neurotic  and  somewhat 
beyond  the  margin  of  the  intelligible. 

The  Awkward  Age  is  another  novel  which  very  clearly  illus- 
trates the  difficulty.  This  novel  is  usually  one  of  the  first  at- 
tacked by  those  who  dislike  the  author,  and  it  is  in  subject  and 
in  treatment  alike  unquestionably  one  of  the  most  tenuous.  I 
personally  find  it,  as  I  find  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  and  for 
reasons  to  which  later  I  shall  allude  briefly,  both  moving  and 
amusing  in  spite  of  the  defects  which  I  am  considering,  but  that 
fact  for  the  moment  is  beside  the  point. 

The  book  centers  on  Mrs.  Brookenham,  the  guiding  spirit 
of  a  clever  social  group,  and  her  daughter,  Nanda,  who  as 
the  book  opens,  arrives  at  that  age  of  formal  and  recognized 
maturity  at  which  she  is  permitted  to  "come  down  stairs,"  or 
be  one  of  her  mother's  guests.  The  circle  in  question  is  witty, 
moderately  intellectual,  and  accustomed  to  perfect  freedom  of 
discussion.  The  question  then  arises  whether  conversation  shall 
be  sacrificed  to  the  young  girl,  or  the  young  girl  to  conversation. 
The  latter,  in  a  sense,  occurs:  that  is,  Nanda  takes  part  in  con- 
versations, from  which,  according  to  dying  but  not  yet  dead  tra- 
ditions, a  young  girl  should  be  guarded.  Nanda  is  in  love  with 
Vanderbank,  a  contemporary  and  apparently  an  old  admirer  of 
her  mother.  Vanderbank  is  attracted  to  Nanda,  but  gradually 
comes  to  feel  that  she  is  in  some  way  spoiled  by  this  exposure, 
and  turns  away  from  her.  Mr.  Longdon,  who  had  been  in  love 
with  Nanda's  grandmother,  to  whom  Nanda  bears  an  exact  phys- 
ical resemblance,  is  necessarily  attracted  to  Nanda,  and  tells 
Vanderbank  that  he  will  provide  Nanda  with  a  considerable 


dowry,  in  the  hope  of  moving  Vanderbank  to  marry  her.  This, 
however,  fails.  Mitchett,  a  wealthy  young  man  of  no  family  and 
of  no  looks,  but  of  a  character  both  fine  and  charming,  loves 
Nanda,  but  unsuccessfully;  at  her  request,  and  as  a  kind  of 
pledge  of  his  love  for  her,  he  marries  her  friend,  Aggie,  a  young 
girl  who  had  been  conventionally  reared,  and  who  after  her  mar- 
riage becomes  a  lewd  and  vulgar  little  trollop;  after  the  mar- 
riage, one  suspects  also  that  Nanda  suspects  that  perhaps  she 
had  loved  Mitchett  without  knowing  it.  Finally  she  goes  off  with 
Mr.  Longdon,  either  to  be  adopted  by  him,  or  to  marry  him, 
presumably  the  latter.  The  situation  is  that  of  Daisy  Miller  in- 
finitely rarefied:  a  young  girl  of  moral  integrity  and  of  more  or 
less  "natural"  manner,  though  she  is  not  in  this  case  an  Amer- 
ican, violates  a  code  of  manners  and  is  penalized  very  severely. 

The  situation  turns  purely  on  a  point,  and  a  very  subtle  one, 
of  manners;  Nanda  is  delicate  and  sophisticated  and  a  person  of 
the  finest  social  perception,  so  that  her  sins  are  of  the  most  nearly 
imperceptible  kind.  It  is  a  tragedy  of  manners,  in  which  no  genu- 
ine moral  issue  is  involved,  but  in  which  vague  depths  of  moral 
ugliness,  especially  in  Vanderbank,  are  elusively  but  unforget- 
tably suggested.  Vanderbank  is  a  creature  through  whose  tran- 
quil and  pellucid  character  there  arises  at  the  slightest  disturb- 
ance of  his  surface  a  fine  cloud  of  silt,  of  ugly  feeling  far  too 
subtle  to  be  called  suspicion,  but  darkening  his  entire  nature  and 
determining  his  action.  The  tragedy  far  outweighs  the  motive, 
and  the  relations  between  character  and  character  are  frequently 
so  subtle  as  to  be  indefinable.  The  endeavor  to  make  the  motive 
serve  in  such  a  case  no  doubt  accounts  in  part  for  the  excessive 
subtlety  with  which  the  characters  scrutinize  each  other  and  the 
whole  situation;  they  continually  try  to  find  more  in  it  all  than 
is  really  there,  in  the  effort  to  understand  their  own  feelings,  or 
rather  to  justify  them.  They  remind  one— and  James,  since  his 
plight  for  the  moment  is  their  own,  likewise  reminds  one— of 
Hawthorne  scrutinizing  Dr.  Grimshaw's  spiders  with  insanse  in- 
tensity, but  with  no  illumination. 

Mrs.  Brookenham  says:  "  The  thing  is,  don't  you  think?'— she 
appealed  to  Mitchy— Tor  us  not  to  be  so  awfully  clever  as  to  make 


it  believed  that  we  can  never  be  simple.  We  mustn't  sec  too  tre- 
mendous things— even  in  each  other/  She  quite  lost  patience 
with  the  danger  she  glanced  at.  We  can  be  simple!' 

We  can,  by  God!'  Mitchy  laughed. 

Well,  we  are  now— and  it's  a  great  comfort  to  have  it  settled/ 
said  Vanderbank. 

Then  you  see/  Mrs.  Brook  returned,  'what  a  mistake  you'd 
make  to  see  abysses  of  subtlety  in  my  having  been  merely  nat- 
ural/ " 

And  on  another  occasion  Vanderbank  says  to  Nanda:  "You're 
too  much  one  of  us  all.  We've  tremendous  perceptions/' 

It  is  a  remarkable  evidence  of  the  genius  of  James  that  though 
most  of  the  important  actions  in  the  story  are  either  flatly  in- 
credible or  else  are  rendered  so  subtly  as  to  be  indeterminable, 
yet  the  resultant  attitudes  and  states  of  mind  of  the  actors  are 
rendered  with  extraordinary  poignancy:  the  obscure,  slow,  and 
ugly  withdrawal  of  Vanderbank,  the  final  scene  between  Mitchy 
and  Nanda,  the  final  departure  of  Nanda  and  Mr.  Longdon 
(even  though*  one  is  none  too  certain  of  the  exact  nature  of  the 
relationship  to  which  they  are  departing)  are,  for  myself,  among 
the  most  haunting  memories  which  I  retain  from  my  fragmen- 
tary experience  as  a  reader  of  novels.  Yet  few  memorable  novels 
are  less  satisfactory. 

In  order  to  indicate  sharply  the  nature  of  the  Jamesian  ob- 
scurity, I  am  purposely  citing  the  most  extreme  examples  of  it, 
before  examining  the  manner  in  which  it  invades  the  more  im- 
portant works.  I  wish  to  conclude  this  phase  of  the  discussion, 
with  an  account  of  the  most  extraordinary  plunge  into  pure  in- 
coherence which  James  ever  made,  the  posthumous  and  unfin- 
ished book  entitled  The  Sense  of  the  Past.  Though  the  work  is 
unfinished,  we  possess  the  author's  notes  for  the  unfinished  por- 
tion, so  that  we  have  a  very  good  idea  of  what  would  have  hap- 

The  story  deals  with  Ralph  Pendrel,  a  young  man  of  about 
thirty  years  and  some  wealth,  who  has  been  prevented  from  visit- 
ing Europe  because  of  various  personal  obligations.  Death,  hav- 
ing eliminated  the  last  of  these  obligations,  he  goes.  He  is  a  kind 

of  amateur  historical  scholar,  and  he  has  published  a  monograph 
on  a  theory  of  the  historical  approach.  A  distant  relative  in  Eng- 
land has  read  this  monograph  and  admired  it,  and,  dying  just 
before  the  visit  to  Europe,  has  bequeathed  the  young  man  a 
house  in  London,  which  had  been  built  early  in  the  eighteenth 
century.  Pendrel  visits  the  house  immediately  upon  arriving,  and 
spends  an  afternoon  and  evening  in  the  examination  of  it;  an 
examination  in  which  he  observes  among  other  items  the  portrait 
of  a  young  man  of  the  early  nineteenth  century,  that  is,  of  about 
a  hundred  years  before  the  initial  action,  which  arouses  his  curi- 
osity: the  portrait  is  a  three-quarters  rear  view  of  the  head,  so  that 
the  features  are  not  shown.  Late  in  the  evening  the  young  man  of 
the  portrait  steps  down,  and  the  two  meet  and  strike  a  bargain:  the 
young  man  of  the  portrait  had  always  had  great  curiosity  about 
the  future,  just  as  Pendrel  has  had  about  the  past,  and  they  ex- 
change periods,  the  agreement  being  that  either  will  come  to  the 
aid  of  the  other  if  the  going  becomes  difficult. 

The  next  morning  Pendrel  pays  a  visit  to  the  American  am- 
bassador, tells  him  what  has  happened,  takes  him  to  the  house, 
bids  him  goodbye,  and  steps  into  the  doorway,  thereupon  enter- 
ing the  past.  He  finds  a  young  woman  within,  Miss  Molly  Mid- 
more,  a  distant  relative,  whom,  it  appears,  he  has  just  come  from 
America  to  marry.  The  remainder  of  the  book  as  far  as  written 
and  apparently  as  far  as  planned  deals  with  a  conversation  be- 
tween these  two  and  others,  the  conversation  running  through 
the  remainder  of  the  day  and  evening.  The  other  persons  are 
Molly's  sister,  Nan,  who  appears  on  the  scene  late,  and  with 
whom  Pendrel  gradually  falls  in  love,  Molly's  mother,  Molly's 
brother,  and  Nan's  suitor. 

The  plot  is  something  like  this:  as  a  result  of  the  protracted 
conversation,  Pendrel  and  his  hosts  gradually  become  aware  of 
fine  differences  of  social  tone;  differences  which  make  Pendrel 
feel  an  alien  to  the  point  of  arousing  his  terror,  and  which  on 
the  other  hand  cause  the  Midmores  to  feel  a  suspicion  of  Pen- 
drel which  becomes  in  the  long  run  almost  equally  intense. 
These  differences  are  first  a  greater  sophistication  on  the  part  of 
the  British  than  on  the  part  of  the  American,  and  second  a 


greater  brutality  in  regard  to  the  essentially  moral  or  humane 
values  on  the  part  of  the  nineteenth  century  than  on  the  part  of 
the  twentieth.  It  is  this  latter  difference  which  gradually  becomes 
the  more  obvious  and  which  arouses  Pendrel's  terror. 

Now  the  original  young  man  of  the  nineteenth  century  had 
really  married  Molly;  but  Pendrel  gradually  comes  to  find  her 
vaguely  gross  and  repulsive,  and  he  falls  in  love  with  Nan,  who 
is  less  characteristic  of  her  period,  and  who  falls  in  love  with  him. 
Pendrel  thus  betrays  his  bargain;  the  other  young  man  appears 
to  him  from  time  to  time  to  threaten  him,  and  finally  decides  to 
abandon  him  to  the  nineteenth  century  and  his  own  devices, 
from  which  he  is  ultimately  rescued  by  the  self-sacrifice  of  Nan. 

In  the  course  of  the  conversation,  Pendrel  finds  himself  from 
the  beginning  provided  with  information  about  his  situation, 
and  about  the  entire  Midmore  family,  as  the  need  arises,  like  a 
man  in  a  dream.  At  one  point  he  even  finds  himself  provided 
with  a  miniature  painting  of  Molly:  he  extracts  it  from  his  vest 
pocket,  in  spite  of  the  fact  that  a  moment  before  he  had  had  no 
inkling  of  its 'existence. 

The  conversation  is  devoted  in  a  large  measure,  so  far  as 
subject  matter  is  concerned,  to  establishing  through  this  dream- 
procedure,  the  antecedent  relationships  between  the  Pendrels 
and  the  Midmores;  so  far  as  tone  and  effect  arc  concerned,  it  is 
devoted  to  establishing  the  differences  already  mentioned.  It  is 
often  difficult  if  not  impossible  to  grasp  these  differences,  they 
are  so  nearly  imperceptible:  the  result  of  the  difficulty  is  in  a  large 
measure  the  feeling  that  James  is  nearly  as  hallucinated  as  Pen- 
drel; it  is  a  kind  of  pushing  of  James's  passion  for  subtle  distinc- 
tions of  manner  to  something  resembling  madness.  James,  like 
the  characters  in  The  Awkward  Age,  becomes  so  watchful  for 
symptoms  that  he  appears  to  become  self-hypnotized;  in  this 
again  he  resembles  the  later  Hawthorne. 

To  illustrate  the  difficulty,  let  me  quote  from  the  description 
of  Mrs.  Midmore:  "However,  she  was  herself  an  apparition  of 
such  force  that  the  question  of  his  own  luck  missed  application 
and  he  but  stared  at  her  lost,  and  yet  again  lost,  in  that  reflection 
that  yes,  absolutely  yes,  no  approach  to  such  a  quality  of  tone  as 


she  dealt  in  had  ever  in  his  own  country  greeted  his  ear.  Yes, 
again  and  yet  again,  it  spoke  of  ten  thousand  things  that  he  could 
guess  at  now  in  her  presence,  and  that  he  had  even  dreamed  of, 
beforehand,  through  faint  echoes  and  in  other  stray  lights;  things 
he  could  see  she  didn't  in  the  least  think  of  at  the  moment  either, 
all  possessed  as  she  was  with  the  allowance  she  had  in  her  hos- 
pitality already  made  for  him.  Every  fact  of  her  appearance  con- 
tributed somehow  to  this  grand  and  generous  air,  the  something- 
or-other  suggesting  to  him  that  he  had  never  yet  seen  manner  at 
home  at  that  pitch,  any  more  than  he  had  veritably  heard  utter- 
ance. When  or  where,  in  any  case,  had  his  eye,  alert  as  he  might 
feel  it  naturally  was,  been  caught  by  such  happy  pomp  as  that  of 
the  disposed  dark  veil  or  mantilla  which,  attached  to  her  head, 
framed  in  hoodlike  looseness  this  seat  of  her  high  character  and, 
gathering  about  her  shoulders,  crossed  itself  as  a  pair  of  long  ends 
that  depended  in  lacelike  fashion  almost  to  her  feet?  He  had 
apprehended  after  a  few  more  seconds  that  here  was  'costume' 
beheld  of  him  in  the  very  fact  and  giving  by  its  effect  all  the  joy  of 
recognition— since  he  had  hitherto  had  but  to  suppose  and  to  con- 
ceive it,  though  without  being  in  the  effort,  as  his  own  person 
might  testify,  too  awkwardly  far  out.  Yes,  take  him  for  what  she 
would,  she  might  see  that  he  too  was  dressed— which  tempered 
his  barbarism  perhaps  only  too  much  and  referred  itself  back 
at  all  events,  he  might  surely  pretend,  to  a  prime  and  after  all  not 
uncommendable  intuition  of  the  matter.  If  he  had  always  been, 
as  he  would  have  allowed,  overdressed  for  New  York,  where 
this  was  a  distinct  injury  to  character  and  credit,  business  credit 
at  least,  which  he  had  none  the  less  braced,  so  he  had  already 
found  he  was  no  more  than  quite  right  for  London,  and  for 
Mansfield  Square  in  especial;  though  at  the  same  time  he  didn't 
aspire,  and  wouldn't  for  the  world,  to  correspond  with  such  hints 
as  Mrs.  Midmore  threw  off.  She  threw  it  off  to  a  mere  glance  that 
she  represented  by  the  aid  of  dress  the  absolute  value  and  use  of 
presence  as  presence,  apart  from  any  other  office— a  pretension 
unencountered  in  that  experience  of  his  own  which  he  had  yet  up 
to  now  tended  to  figure  as  lively.  Absolutely  again,  as  he  could  re- 
cover, he  had  never  understood  presence  without  use  to  play  a 

recognized  part;  which  would  but  come  back  indeed  to  the  ques- 
tion of  what  use— great  ambiguous  question-begging  term!— 
might  on  occasion  consist  of.  He  was  not  to  go  into  that  for  some 
time  yet,  but  even  on  the  spot  it  none  the  less  shone  at  him  for 
the  instant  that  he  was  apparently  now  to  see  ornament  itself 
frankly  recognized  as  use;  and  not  only  that,  but  boldly  con- 
tented, unassailably  satisfied,  with  a  vagueness  so  portentous— 
which  it  somehow  gave  a  promise  to  his  very  eyes  of  the  moment 
that  he  should  find  convincingly  asserted  and  extended.  All  this 
conspired  toward  offering  him  in  this  wondrous  lady  a  figure  that 
made  ladies  hitherto  displayed  to  him,  and  among  whom  had 
been  several  beauties,  though  doubtless  none  so  great  as  splendid 
Molly,  lose  at  a  stroke  their  lustre  for  memory,  positively  vitiated 
as  they  thus  seemed  by  the  obscurity,  not  to  say  the  flat  humility, 
of  their  employed  and  applied  and  their  proportionately  admired 

One  should  note  in  connection  with  a  passage  like  this  one, 
that  concentration  so  intense  and  so  exclusive  on  so  trivial  an 
aspect  of  character  amounts  to  madness,  and  that  PendreFs  in- 
tense excitement  is  vastly  disproportionate  to  any  actual  percep- 
tion that  one  can  disentangle,  as  it  is  likewise  later  in  the  story 
when  his  attention  begins  to  focus  on  what  he  conceives  to  be 
the  difference  between  the  two  periods,  so  that  Pendrel,  like 
other  characters  mentioned,  strongly  resembles  Mr.  Wilson's  ver- 
sion of  the  governess  in  The  Turn  of  the  Screw.,  Further,  in  the 
story  as  a  whole,  one  perception  is  only  indicated  or  suggested 
before  it  suggests  another  and  is  consequently  dropped;  Pendrel's 
(that  is,  James's)  feelings  and  interpretations  of  events  are  essen- 
tially similar  in  their  emergence  and  progression  to  the  informa- 
tion on  which  they  are  based,  which  emerges  and  proceeds  as  in 
a  dream.  This  passage  endeavors  to  make  a  marginal  aspect  of 
experience  ("tone")  carry  vastly  more  significance  than  is  proper 
to  it,  and  it  is,  in  addition,  uncertain  and  incoherent  in  its  import. 
It  is  a  striking  fore-runner  of  the  Experimental  poetry  of  the 
twentieth  century,  even  of  the  extreme  forms  of  such  poetry,  and 
indicates  more  clearly  than  anything  else  could  do  the  historical 
continuity  between  the  earlier  American  culture  and  the  more 


recent  literature;  for  this  phenomenon  in  James  is  distinctly,  and 
nothing  more  than,  an  extreme  development  of  a  difficulty  in- 
herent in  all  his  work  and  in  the  society  which  gave  rise  to  his 
work,  a  difficulty  of  which  he  was  in  a  considerable  measure 
aware,  but  of  which  he  was  insufficiently  aware  to  correct  it.  The 
obscurity  of  the  moral  problem,  the  development  of  the  feeling 
in  excess  of  the  motive,  is  a  familiar  phenomenon  of  the  romantic 
period,  that  is,  of  the  period  extending  roughly  from  about  1750 
to  the  present.  The  conscientious  concentration  upon  this  obscu- 
rity—conscientious almost  to  hallucination,  and  almost  to  halluci- 
nation because  so  seldom  intellectual  in  spite  of  the  conscientious- 
ness—is the  residue  of  the  New  England  heritage,  as  I  have 
endeavored  to  show,  even  when  that  concentration  is  imputed  to 
an  English  character,  such  as  Fleda  Vetch. 

I  should  like  to  consider  briefly  the  margin  of  similar  difficulty 
inhering  in  some  of  the  more  successful  novels. 

Roderick  Hudson  is  a  portrait  of  a  certain  type  of  romantic 
genius  in  disintegration.  Hudson,  the  genius,  is  taken  to  Rome 
by  a  wealthy  compatriot,  Mallett,  and  there  rapidly  matures  as 
an  artist,  but  in  the  process  of  so  doing  loses  control  of  himself 
morally,  sinks  into  a  condition  of  mental  and  moral  lethargy,  and 
eventually  dies  in  a  storm  in  the  Alps,  perhaps  by  suicide,  prob- 
ably by  accident,  after  a  brief  but  brilliant  career  in  which  he  has 
managed  to  outrage  most  of  the  human  decencies  and  apparently 
with  very  small  consciousness  of  what  he  is  doing.  James  in  his 
preface  to  this  work  remarks:  "My  mistake  on  Roderick's  behalf 
—and  not  in  the  least  of  conception,  but  of  composition  and  expres- 
sion—is that,  at  the  rate  at  which  he  falls  to  pieces,  he  seems  to 
place  himself  beyond  our  understanding  and  our  sympathy. 
These  are  not  our  rates,  we  say;  we  ourselves  certainly,  under 
like  pressure,— for  what  is  it,  after  all?— would  make  more  of  a 
fight.  We  conceive  going  to  pieces— nothing  is  easier,  since  we 
see  people  do  it,  one  way  or  another,  all  round  us;  but  this  young 
man  must  either  have  had  less  of  the  principle  of  development  to 
have  had  so  much  of  the  principle  of  collapse,  or  less  of  the  prin- 
ciple of  collapse  to  have  had  so  much  of  the  principle  of  develop- 
ment. 'On  the  basis  of  so  great  a  weakness/  one  hears  the  reader 


say,  'where  was  the  idea  of  your  interest?  On  the  basis  of  so  great 
an  interest,  where  is  the  provision  for  so  much  weakness?'  One 
feels  indeed,  in  the  light  of  this  challenge,  on  how  much  too 
scantily  projected  and  suggested  a  field  poor  Roderick  and  his 
large  capacity  for  ruin  are  made  to  turn  round.  It  has  all  begun  too 
soon,  as  I  say,  and  too  simply,  and  the  determinant  function  at- 
tributed to  Christina  Light,  the  character  of  well-nigh  sole  agent 
of  his  catastrophe  that  this  young  woman  has  forced  upon  her, 
fails  to  commend  itself  to  our  sense  of  truth  and  proportion/' 

We  have  here  the  objection  of  the  experienced  novelist  in  his 
old  age  to  a  work  of  his  youth;  and  he  seems  to  miss  the  point 
as  a  result  of  concentrating  so  acutely  upon  the  problems  of  the 
construction  of  novels  in  general  as  to  forget  the  subject  of  the 
novel  in  hand.  The  subject  in  hand  is  a  particular  type  of  irra- 
tional genius  fairly  common  since  the  third  quarter  of  the  eight- 
eenth century;  and  anyone  who  has  ever  played  in  a  modest  way 
the  role  of  a  Mallett  or  even  of  a  more  remote  observer  of  a  crea- 
ture like  Hudson,  or  anyone  who  has  ever  seriously  considered 
the  life  and  letters,  let  us  say,  of  Shelley,  can  scarcely  fail  to  be 
struck  by  the  verisimilitude.  From  the  point  of  view  of  the 
Jamesian  novelist,  the  work  is  not  properly  a  novel,  and  for  the 
reasons  which  James  assigns— it  contains  too  little  of  the  element 
of  struggle  to  be  dramatic— but  as  a  full-length  and  objective  por- 
trait of  an  uncommon  but  still  recognizable  type,  the  book  is  in 
its  fashion  superb. 

It  is  the  subject,  then,  and  not  the  method,  which  justifies  the 
younger  James  against  the  older;  but  if  the  same  objections  can 
be  raised  against  the  treatment  of  individuals  presumably  more 
normal,  the  situation  becomes  more  serious. 

In  The  American,  an  early  novel  to  which  I  have  repeatedly 
referred  in  the  earlier  sections  of  this  essay,  Christopher  New- 
man, the  American  who  gives  the  book  its  title,  becomes  engaged 
to  marry  Mme.  de  Cintre,  a  beautiful  and  aristocratic  young 
French  widow,  of  the  family  Bellegarde;  then  her  mother  and 
her  older  brother  break  off  the  engagement,  on  the  grounds  that, 
on  second  thought,  an  alliance  with  so  rank  a  barbarian  is  a  more 
painful  experience  than  they  can  endure.  Newman  has  disliked 


these  two  from  the  outset,  and  has  suspected  them  of  an  evil 
past;  the  suspicion  hovers  over  the  entire  book.  Mme.  de  Cintr6, 
in  taking  leave  of  Newman,  in  her  mother's  presence,  says  she 
is  doing  it  because  she  is  afraid  of  her  mother.  The  younger 
brother,  who  has  become  Newman's  friend,  and  who  feels  the 
family  to  have  been  disgraced  by  this  perfidy  on  the  part  of  his 
brother  and  mother,  tells  Newman  on  his  deathbed  that  he  is 
sure  that  his  mother  and  brother  between  them  killed  his  father 
and  that  a  certain  family  servant  knows  the  details.  From  this 
servant,  Newman  obtains  a  note  written  by  the  elder  marquis 
just  before  his  death  and  given  her  as  he  was  dying,  which  says 
that  his  wife  has  killed  him,  but  with  no  explanation.  The  serv- 
ant hazards  the  guess  that  when  the  marquise  was  with  the  mar- 
quis alone,  she  may  have  poured  his  medicine  on  the  ground 
when  he  called  for  it,  in  an  attack  of  pain,  and  at  the  same  time 
have  given  him  a  look  so  full  of  hatred  that  he  wished  to  die.  At 
any  rate,  after  a  long  illness,  and  shortly  after  he  had  begun  to 
recover,  he  lapsed  into  a  coma  after  his  wife  had  spent  some 
hours  alone  with  him,  and  recovered  only  long  enough  to  write 
this  note  and  give  it  to  the  servant. 

The  details  of  the  evil  in  the  Bellegardes  are  very  uncertain; 
yet  the  effect  in  the  form  of  their  social  presence,  their  emotional 
effect  upon  Newman,  is  very  definite.  Also,  the  fear  felt  by  the 
heroine  of  her  mother,  the  nature  of  the  power  wielded  by  the 
mother  over  her,  is  largely  obscure,  though  it  may  in  part  be 
explained  by  social  usage  and  by  consequently  ingrained  habit, 
beginning  in  childhood. 

James  is  fairly  severe  on  this  work  in  his  preface.  He  writes: 
"The  only  general  attribute  of  projected  romance  that  I  can  see, 
the  only  one  that  fits  all  its  cases,  is  the  fact  of  the  kind  of  experi- 
ence with  which  it  deals—experience  liberated,  so  to  speak;  ex- 
perience disengaged,  disembroiled,  disencumbered,  exempt  from 
the  conditions  that  we  usually  know  to  attach  to  it  and,  if  we 
wish  so  to  put  the  matter,  drag  upon  it,  and  operating  in  a  me- 
dium which  relieves  it,  in  a  particular  interest,  of  the  incon- 
venience of  a  related,  a  measurable  state,  a  state  subject  to  all  our 
vulgar  communities.  The  greatest  intensity  may  so  be  arrived  at 


evidently— when  the  sacrifice  of  community,  of  the  'related'  sides 
of  situations,  has  not  been  too  rash.  It  must  to  this  end  not 
flagrantly  betray  itself;  we  must  even  be  kept  if  possible,  for  our 
illusion,  from  suspecting  any  sacrifice  at  all.  The  balloon  of  ex- 
perience is  in  fact  of  course  tied  to  the  earth,  and  under  that 
necessity  we  swing,  thanks  to  a  rope  of  remarkable  length,  in  the 
more  or  less  commodious  car  of  the  imagination;  but  it  is  by  the 
rope  we  know  where  we  are,  and  from  the  moment  that  cable  is 
cut  we  are  at  large  and  unrelated:  we  only  swing  apart  from  the 
globe— though  remaining  as  exhilarated,  naturally,  as  we  like, 
especially  when  all  goes  well.  The  art  of  the  romancer  is,  'for  the 
fun  of  it/  insidiously  to  cut  the  cable,  to  cut  it  without  our  detect- 
ing him.  What  I  have  recognized  then  in  'The  American/  much 
to  my  surprise  and  after  long  years,  is  that  the  experience  here 
represented  is  the  disconnected  and  uncontrolled  experience- 
uncontrolled  by  our  general  sense  of  'the  way  things  happen'— 
which  romance  alone  more  or  less  successfully  palms  off  on  us." 

James  in  discussing  the  defects  of  this  plot  in  the  preface  states 
that  the  Bellegardes,  had  they  been  real  French  people  of  their 
class  and  type,  would  not  have  treated  Newman  as  in  the  novel; 
that  they  would  have  got  hold  of  him  and  kept  him  as  quietly  as 
possible  and  have  fed  their  self-esteem  and  sense  of  security  on 
the  profit.  This,  of  course,  is  conjecture,  and  in  actual  life  it  is 
at  least  conceivable  that  they  might  have  acted  either  way.  But 
he  gets  closer  to  the  heart  of  the  difficulty  in  discussing  Mme.  de 
Cintre,  her  fear  of  her  mother,  and  the  obscure  influence  wielded 
over  her  by  her  mother.  He  says:  "It  is  as  difficult,  I  said  above, 
to  trace  the  dividing  line  between  the  real  and  the  romantic  as 
to  plant  a  mile-stone  between  north  and  south;  but  I  am  not  sure 
an  infallible  sign  of  the  latter  is  not  this  rank  vegetation  of  the 
'power*  of  bad  people  that  good  get  into,  or  vice-versa.  It  is  so 
rarely,  alas,  into  our  power  that  anyone  gets!" 

Now  it  so  happens  that  this  formula  is  applicable,  not  only  to 
The  American,  but  to  a  good  deal  of  James:  this  particular  rank 
vegetation  is  the  specific  form  that  the  Jamesian  moral  obscurity 
frequently  takes.  Christina  Light  exercises  some  such  power  over 
Roderick  Hudson,  but,  as  I  have  already  pointed  out,  the  power, 


like  the  other  aspects  of  Hudson's  behavior,  becomes  compre- 
hensible on  the  understanding  that  Hudson  is  essentially  an  in- 
comprehensible type;  in  The  Turn  of  the  Screw,  the  ghosts  ex- 
ercise such  a  power  over  the  children,  but  they  again  are  immune 
to  ordinary  standards  of  criticism,  for  either  they  are  ghosts,  and 
so  supernatural,  or  else  they  are  the  products  of  an  insane  mind 
and  so  legitimately  romantic.  The  power  of  Muniment  and  of 
the  Princess  Casamassima  (formerly  Christina  Light)  over  Hya- 
cinth Robinson  verges  on  this  phenomenon,  but  perhaps  less 
clearly.  The  power  of  Osmund  over  his  wife  and  his  daughter 
in  The  Portrait  of  a  Lady,  is  a  particularly  clear  example;  and 
to  this  I  shall  return  in  a  moment. 

James  writes  further  in  the  preface  to  The  American:  "Noth- 
ing here  is  in  truth  'offered'— everything  is  evaded,  and  the  effect 
of  this,  I  recognize,  is  of  the  oddest.  His  relation  to  Mme.  de 
Cintre  takes  a  great  stride,  but  the  author  appears  to  view  that 
but  as  a  signal  for  letting  it  severely  alone."  And  again,  of  Mme. 
de  Cintre:  "With  this  lady,  altogether,  I  recognize,  a  light  plank, 
too  light  a  plank,  is  laid  for  the  reader  over  a  dark  'psychologi- 
cal' abyss.  The  delicate  clue  to  her  conduct  is  never  definitely 
placed  in  his  hand:  I  must  have  liked  to  think  verily  it  was  deli- 
cate and  to  flatter  myself  that  it  was  to  be  felt  with  the  finger-tips 
rather  than  heavily  tugged  at."  Much  of  the  obscurity  of  this  plot, 
then,  became  evident  to  James,  and  the  obscurity  as  described  in 
his  own  terms  is  of  much  the  same  sort  as  that  which  he  found 
in  Roderick  Hudson;  but  we  cannot  find  in  the  subject  of  The 
American  the  justification  for  the  obscurity  which  we  can  find 
in  the  subject  of  the  other  book.  There  is  a  marked  tendency  in 
this  book  on  the  part  of  James  and  of  his  characters  alike  to  read 
into  situations  more  than  can  be  justified  by  the  facts  as  given, 
to  build  up  intense  states  of  feeling,  on  the  basis  of  such  reading, 
and  to  judge  or  act  as  a  result  of  that  feeling.  This  is  what  we 
found  Fleda  Vetch  doing  in  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  and  above 
all  it  is  what  we  found  the  governess  doing  in  The  Turn  of  the 
Screw,  so  intensely,  in  fact,  that  the  story  may  well  be  taken  to 
serve,  if  we  accept  the  psychopathic  interpretation,  as  a  very 
acute  and  devastating  self-parody. 

33 i 

In  The  Portrait  of  a  Lady  the  chief  difficulty  resides  in  the 
feelings  inspired  by  Osmund  in  the  latter  part  of  the  book,  and 
in  Isabel's  final  decision;  the  margin  of  obscurity  here  is  slight, 
and  to  the  average  American  admirer  of  James  will  no  doubt 
appear  negligible,  but  the  margin  is  genuine  notwithstanding 
and  is  worth  examining  if  we  wish  to  get  a  broad  view  of  the 
man.  Osmund  is  a  kind  of  neurotic  aesthete,  self-centered,  un- 
scrupulous within  the  limits  of  safety,  and  thoroughly  unpleas- 
ant, but  the  species  of  terror  which  Isabel  comes  to  feel  in  regard 
to  him  is  absolutely  unexplained  by  any  of  his  actions  or  by  any 
characteristic  described.  He  betrayed  Isabel  in  regard  to  his  mar- 
riage with  her,  but  this  betrayal  is  scarcely  a  motive  for  the  par- 
ticular feeling  which  Isabel  comes  to  experience.  Furthermore, 
the  same  feeling  is  experienced  by  the  daughter,  Pansy,  who  was 
presumably  unaware  of  the  deception:  Pansy  is  confined  in  a 
convent  to  break  off  her  attachment  to  her  young  and  unsuitable 
admirer;  the  convent  is  the  one  in  which  she  went  to  school 
throughout  childhood  and  is  wholly  familiar,  and  the  nuns  are 
devoted  anJ'kind;  but  Pansy  after  a  brief  period  there  can  en- 
dure no  more  and  surrenders  abjectly  and  in  fear.  The  influence 
of  Osmund  here  is  of  the  same  obscure  type  as  the  influence  of 
the  Bellegardes.  And  at  the  end,  though  Isabel  returns  to  her 
husband  because  of  an  intense  moral  sense,  generically  of  the 
same  type  as  that  of  Fleda  Vetch,  James  seems  to  fear  the  in- 
adequacy of  this  sense  as  a  sole  motive,  and  bolsters  it  up  by 
her  desire  and  promise  to  stand  by  Pansy  in  the  trials  ahead  of 
her.  The  power  and  influence  thus  obscurely  wielded  by  Osmund 
provide  the  dramatic  crisis  of  the  book. 

In  The  Princess  Casamassima  a  similar  power  is  exerted  over 
Hyacinth  Robinson  by  Paul  Muniment  and  by  the  Princess;  in 
fact,  the  entire  effect  of  Muniment's  character  is  unexplained, 
and  that  of  the  Princess  is  but  partly  explained.  Muniment  is  a 
member  of  a  secret  revolutionary  and  terroristic  group,  and  his 
entire  value  in  the  novel  derives  from  this  fact;  he  is  the  moral 
agent  of  a  hidden  and  malign  power;  the  impressiveness  of  his 
character  is  the  perceptible  token  of  this  fact;  his  influence  over 
Hyacinth  is  the  power  in  action.  But  on  the  actual  stage  of  the 


novel  he  does  little  or  nothing;  of  the  views,  purposes,  and  ac- 
tivities of  his  group  we  know  next  to  nothing  and  we  suspect 
that  James  knew  less;  we  see  Muniment  enter  a  dark  doorway 
occasionally,  accompanied  by  the  Princess,  a  doorway  behind 
which  we  suspect  that  a  meeting  is  in  progress;  we  hear  the  last, 
ominous,  but  uninformative  conversational  exchange  between  the 
two  immediately  prior  to  their  separating  after  a  discussion  of 
some  kind;  and  for  the  rest  we  observe  Muniment  at  tea-parties, 
conversing  very  little  but  tremendously  impressing  all  present. 
In  The  Ivory  Tower  the  effect  of  the  American  financial  career  is 
portrayed  in  much  the  same  manner,  but  the  real  action  produc- 
ing the  effect,  the  essential  evil,  is  not  described,  for  of  that, 
James,  as  he  admitted,  knew  nothing.  The  remarkable  thing 
about  both  of  these  plots  is  the  degree  of  realism  that  James  man- 
ages to  extract  from  them,  when  they  are,  essentially,  so  inane. 

Joseph  Warren  Beach  remarks  of  The  Princess  Casamassima:* 
"As  for  the  revolutionary  movement,  the  very  vagueness  of  its 
presentation  was  a  part  of  James's  scheme.  'My  scheme,'  he  says, 
'called  for  the  suggested  nearness  (to  all  our  apparently  ordered 
life)  of  some  sinister  anarchic  underworld,  heaving  in  its  pain, 
its  power  and  its  hate;  a  presentation  not  of  sharp  particulars,  but 
of  loose  appearances,  vague  motions  and  sounds  and  symptoms, 
just  perceptible  presences  and  general  looming  possibilities.'  " 
The  trouble  appears  to  the  present  writer  to  be  that  as  a  motivat- 
ing force  for  a  two- volume  novel,  especially  a  novel  which  pur- 
ports to  spread  so  vast  a  canvas  for  the  representation  of  various 
levels  of  society,  these  "vague  motions,  sounds,  and  symptoms" 
have  little  more  force  or  dignity  than  a  small  boy  under  a  sheet 
on  Hallowe'en;  they  repeatedly  approach  the  ludicrous:  the  adult 
in  broad  daylight,  that  is  the  reader  of  a  Jamesian  novel,  is  un- 
likely to  experience  terror  without  admitting  good  reason.  Beach 
a  little  later  remarks  of  the  Princess  herself:8  "But  she  is  also,  for 
Hyacinth  and  for  us,  the  mystery  of  a  character  not  thoroughly 
understood  .  .  .  what  we  are  never  sure  of  is  how  far  she  is  hu- 
man." Beach  prefers  her  representation  in  this  novel  to  her  rep- 

j.  * 

5J.  W.  Beach,  op.  cit.,  page  213. 
8  Ibid.,  page  215. 


reservation  in  Roderick  Hudson,  and  regards  this  book  as  one  of 
the  greater  ones.  But  in  Roderick  Hudson  we  are  fairly  certain  as 
to  how  far  she  is  human  and  how  far  not,  and  the  exact  degree 
is  rendered  not  only  clearly  but  compactly,  and  in  terms  of  defi- 
nite action;  she  appears  there  in  a  clear  light,  a  figure  of  inimi- 
table beauty  and  perversity.  The  Princess  Casamassima  as  a  novel 
suffers  in  its  actual  form  from  the  obscure  background  of  all  save 
three  of  its  characters— Anastasius  Vetch,  Miss  Pynsent,  and  in  a 
measure  Hyacinth— and  so  many  and  such  long  scenes  are  de- 
voted to  the  representation  of  obscure  characters  that  the  novel 
appears  to  have  little  form;  we  are  most  of  the  time  in  a  kind  of 
stagnant  water. 

If  we  proceed  from  these  latter  works  to  the  latest,  and  consider 
the  book  which  for  James  was  his  most  satisfactory,  The  Am- 
bassadors, we  have  at  least  three  sources  of  difficulty,  of  possible 
dissatisfaction.  In  the  first  place,  it  is  only  by  stretching  a  point 
that  we  can  bring  ourselves  to  consider  Chad  Newsome  at  best  a 
bone  worth  quite  so  much  contention,  worth  the  expenditure  ol 
quite  so  much  moral  heroism  as  Strether  expends  upon  him.  We 
can  understand  Chad's  hesitation  to  return  to  the  American  busi- 
ness life  of  his  period,  but  his  alternative— that  of  a  young  man 
about  Paris,  however  cultivated,— is  scarcely  the  alternative  of  a 
Henry  Adams.  The  central  issue  does  not  quite  support  the  dra- 
matics, as  does,  on  the  other  hand,  the  central  issue  of  each  of  the 
other  late  masterpieces,  The  Golden  Bowl  and  The  Wings  of  the 
Dove.  Furthermore,  our  final  attitude  toward  Chad  is  unresolved, 
and  thus  resembles  our  final  attitude  toward  Owen  Gereth  in  The 
Spoils  of  Poynton;  this  may  not  be  untrue  to  life,  but  it  is  untrue 
to  art,  for  a  work  of  art  is  an  evaluation,  a  judgment,  of  an  experi- 
ence, and  only  in  so  far  as  it  is  that  is  it  anything;  and  James  in 
this  one  respect  does  not  even  judge  the  state  of  uncertainty,  but 
as  in  The  Spoils  of  Poynton,  he  merely  leaves  us  uncertain. 
Shakespeare  left  us  in  no  uncertainty  about  Coriolanus;  Melville 
in  none  about  Ahab  or  Benito  Cereno;  nor  did  either  author  lack 
subtlety.  And  finally,  Strether's  ultimate  scruple— to  give  up 
Maria  Gostrey,  so  that  he  may  not  seem  in  Woollett  to  have  got 
anything  for  himself  from  a  situation  in  which  he  will  seem  to  his 


friends  in  Woollett  to  have  betrayed  his  trust,  and  in  spite  of  the 
fact  that  Miss  Gostrey  could  scarcely  have  been  regarded  as  in 
any  sense  a  bribe— this  scruple,  I  say,  impresses  me  very  strongly 
as  a  sacrifice  of  morality  to  appearances:  there  might,  conceivably, 
have  been  more  Christian  humility  in  considering  the  feelings  of 
Maria  Gostrey  and  in  letting  his  reputation  in  Woollett  go  by  the 
board.  The  moral  choice,  here,  appears  to  be  of  the  same  strained 
and  unjustifiable  type  as  that  of  Fleda  Vetch,  or  as  that  of  Isabel 

Joseph  Warren  Beach7  in  his  chapter  on  the  ethics  of  James 
asserts  that  no  one  save  an  American,  or  conceivably  an  English- 
man, will  ever  understand  James  and  admire  him  as  he  deserves, 
because  the  Jamesian  morality  will  be  incomprehensible;  and  he 
adds  that  the  morality  is  essentially  the  morality  of  the  New  Eng- 
land of  Emerson  and  Thoreau.  Beach  does  not  enlarge  upon  these 
ideas;  they  stand  in  his  text  very  much  as  impressions;  but  they 
would  seem  to  be  fairly  sound.  I  have  endeavored  to  define  the 
Jamesian  morality  as  closely  as  possible  and  to  show  its  background 
in  history.  It  does  not  seem  to  me  possible  that  an  American, 
even  a  provincial  American  like  myself,  can  be  wholly  sym- 
pathetic with  James  if  he  examines  him  closely  and  in  his  histor- 
ical context.  Mr.  Beach,  though  he  does  not  examine  that  context, 
though  he  appears  to  be  almost  as  helplessly  in  it  and  of  it  as 
James  himself— I  should  add,  perhaps,  that  my  admiration  for 
Mr.  Beach,  like  my  admiration  for  James,  is  very  great— is  aware, 
though  imperfectly,  of  the  difficulty,  or  at  least  perceives  a  good 
many  individual  representations  of  the  difficulty.  And  James  is 
almost  more  perceptive  in  this  respect  than  is  Mr.  Beach,  in  spite 
of  his  having  been  the  primary  sinner.  I  have  already  cited  a  num- 
ber of  examples  of  his  self-criticism;  I  might  cite  a  passage  from 
a  novel,  The  Bostonians,  which  satirizes  the  very  social  context 
from  which  he  arose,  and  which  would  seem  to  have  been  largely 
responsible  for  his  difficulty.  James  describes  Mrs.  Tarrant,  the 
wife  of  the  faith-healer  and  charlatan-at-large,  in  terms  that  might 
also  serve  as  an  exaggerated  description  of  James  himself  at  his 
worst:  "When  she  talked  and  wished  to  insist,  and  she  was  al- 

Ibid.,  page  131. 


ways  insisting,  she  puckered  and  distorted  her  face,  with  an  effort 
to  express  the  inexpressible,  which  turned  out,  after  all,  to  be 
nothing."  Of  this  woman's  husband,  he  wrote:  "Tarrant  was  a 
moralist  without  a  moral  sense."  But  in  this  Tarrant  did  not 
resemble  James,  but  was  rather  the  representative  of  another  as- 
pect of  New  England,  the  aspect  best  represented  in  literature, 
perhaps,  by  Cooper's  Jason  Newcome,  and  best  promoted  in  life 
by  Benjamin  Franklin,  though  Franklin  personally  had  little 
enough  in  common  or  at  the  very  worst  a  great  deal  that  was 
not  in  common  with  Tarrant  and  Newcome.  James,  however, 
had  too  much  moral  sense,  but  was  insufficiently  a  moralist. 


The  foregoing  pages  might  lead  the  careless  reader  to  assume 
that  my  opinion  of  James  is  low;  the  fact  of  the  matter  is,  that 
if  I  were  permitted  a  definition  of  the  novel  which  should  exclude 
among  other  works  Moby  Dick,  Mardi,  The  Encantadas,  and  the 
autobiographical  works  of  Melville— and  such  a  definition  would 
be  neither  difficult  nor  illegitimate— I  should  be  inclined  to  con- 
sider James  as  the  greatest  novelist  in  English,  as  he  is  certainly 
one  of  the  five  or  six  greatest  writers  of  any  variety  to  be  produced 
in  North  America,  though  the  estimate  would  proceed  from  a 
view  of  the  history  and  form  of  the  novel  that  would  in  all  likeli- 
hood be  pleasing  to  few  devotees  of  that  art. 

The  fact  of  the  matter  is,  that  in  reading  most  of  the  English 
and  American  novelists  preceding  James  who  are  commonly 
conceded  to  be  great,  our  estimate  of  the  writers'  genius  is  formed 
very  largely  on  the  quality  of  the  incidentals  of  the  works  under 
consideration,  and  not  on  the  quality  of  what  in  a  drama  or  an 
epic  would  be  the  essentials.  Jane  Austen,  who  is  inescapably  one 
of  the  best,  hangs  her  remarkably  brilliant  comment  and  char- 
acterization on  frames  of  action  so  conventional  as  to  be  all  but 
trivial;  the  same  is  true  of  Trollope;  it  is  more  obviously  true  of 
Scott.  It  is  less  true  of  such  a  writer  as  Dickens,  but  a  plot  by 
Dickens,  and  usually  half  of  the  attendant  characters,  will  ordi- 
narily be  so  corrupted  by  insufferable  sentimentalism,  that  one 


turns  hither  and  yonder  infallibly  to  reap  what  profit  one  may 
from  the  details.  The  plotting  of  Meredith  and  of  George  Eliot 
is  far  more  serious,  but  both  writers  fall  very  much  below  James 
in  characterization  and  in  the  quality  of  their  prose.  The  prose  of 
James  is  sometimes  obscure,  and  as  a  result  of  the  obscurity  it 
may  sometimes  be  found  diffuse,  but  it  is  always  sensitive  and 
honest;  the  prose  of  George  Eliot  is  laborious,  and  the  prose  of 
Meredith  is  worse— it  is  laboriously  clever. 

If  we  come  to  James  as  we  come  to  Dickens  or  to  Trollope, 
with  the  initial  assumption  that  the  plot  can  be  taken  or  left 
according  to  the  mood  of  the  reader,  the  wealth  of  incidental 
felicities  which  we  are  likely  to  find  will  scarcely  be  equalled  by 
any  other  novelist  in  English.  Many  writers  have  commented 
upon  the  unforgettable  vividness  of  James's  characterization;  I 
personally  have  a  far  sharper  recollection  of  the  characteristics 
and  attitudes,  even  of  the  external  appearance,  of  many  char- 
acters from  James,  and  I  have  such  a  recollection  of  more  char- 
acters, than  I  have  from  all  the  rest  of  English  fiction,  and  cer- 
tainly far  more  than  I  have  from  my  own  life.  Consider,  for  a 
moment,  an  incomplete  enumeration  such  as  the  following:  Rod- 
erick Hudson,  Rowland  Mallett,  Christina  Light,  and  Mary  Gar- 
land, from  Roderick  Hudson,  not  to  mention  minor  characters  so 
charming  as  Sam  Singleton;  Isabel  Archer,  Ralph  Touchett, 
Mme.  Merle,  Gilbert  Osmund,  Caspar  Goodwood,  Henrietta 
Stackpole,  and  Lord  Warburton,  of  The  Portrait  of  a  Lady,  Hya- 
cinth Robinson,  Miss  Pynsent,  and  Anastasius  Vetch  (one  of  the 
most  moving  of  all  the  minor  figures)  of  The  Princess  Casamas- 
sima;  from  The  Tragic  Muse,  Sherringham,  Dormer,  Lady  Julia, 
Dormer's  mother,  Mr.  Carteret,  and  Gabriel  Nash,  a  figure  more 
perverse  and  astonishing  than  any  other  save  Christina  Light  or 
possibly  her  poodle;  Nanda,  Mitchy,  and  Mr.  Longdon  of  The 
Awkward  Age;  Strether,  Maria  Gostrey,  the  Newsomes  and 
Pococks,  Waymarsh,  Mme.  de  Vionnet,  of  The  Ambassadors; 
Kate  Croy,  Merton  Densher,  and  Milly  Theale,  of  The  Wings  of 
the  Dove;  Maggie  Verver,  her  father,  the  Prince,  and  Charlotte 
Stant,  of  The  Golden  Bowl;  Fleda  Vetch  and  Mrs.  Gereth,  of 
The  Spoils  of  Poynton;  the  legendary  but  beautiful  figures,  all 


but  static  in  their  remote  perfection,  of  The  Europeans;  these  are 
only  a  few  of  the  creatures  of  James  whom,  if  one  once  has  met 
them,  one  can  never  forget.  They  are  not  great  caricatures,  like 
Sir  Pitt  Crawley,  whom  one  remembers  carrying  Becky  Sharp's 
trunk  into  the  house,  or  like  the  old  laird  of  Kidnapped,  whose 
nightcapped  head  one  remembers  projecting  from  the  window, 
but  they  are  created  with  a  restraint  such  that  there  is  no  exagger- 
ation, yet  with  an  awareness  so  rich  that  every  essential  detail  is 
realized;  after  the  lapse  of  years  they  are  remembered  not  like 
portraits  from  a  book  but  like  persons  one  has  known,  yet  they 
are  remembered  more  clearly,  for  the  observation  of  James  is  finer 
than  our  own  would  have  been. 

Further,  the  margin  of  imperfection  in  many  of  the  works  is 
not  of  the  utmost  seriousness  aesthetically.  Many  of  the  minor 
works— The  Europeans  is  nearly  the  best  example— are  perfect 
within  their  limits;  the  margin  of  difficulty  in  such  major  efforts 
as  The  Portrait  of  a  Lady  and  The  Ambassadors  is  not  great  in 
proportion  to  the  wealth  offered  us;  The  Wings  of  the  Dove  and 
The  Golderi'Bowl,  though  both  books  display  undue  clairvoy- 
ance on  the  part  of  certain  characters,  are  both  in  their  central 
plotting,  it  seems  to  me,  perfectly  sound. 

Finally,  his  very  virtues,  in  the  semi-successful  works,  and  in 
the  successful  as  well,  are  closely  related  to  his  defects.  His  de- 
fects arise  from  the  effort  on  the  part  of  the  novelist  and  of  his 
characters  to  understand  ethical  problems  in  a  pure  state,  and  to 
understand  them  absolutely,  to  examine  the  marginal,  the  semi- 
obscure,  the  fine  and  definitive  boundary  of  experience;  the 
purely  moral— that  is,  the  moral  divorced  from  all  problems  of 
manners  and  of  compulsion,  as  it  appears  in  the  case  of  Fleda 
Vetch— can  probably  be  defined  but  very  rarely,  and  more  or  less 
as  the  result  of  good  fortune  in  regard  to  the  given  facts  of  the 
situation,  with  the  precision  which  James  appears  to  seek,  so  that 
the  effort  in  all  save  a  few  occasional  and  perfect  situations  must 
necessarily  lead  to  more  or  less  supersubtlety,  and  if  the  super- 
subtlety  is  pushed  far  enough,  as  it  sometimes  is,  to  an  obsurant- 
ism  amounting  in  effect  to  hallucination.  On  the  other  hand, 
the  effort  unquestionably  results  in  a  degree  of  very  genuine  sub- 


tlety,  not  only  of  central  moral  perception,  but  of  incidental  per- 
ception of  character,  that  no  other  novelist  has  equalled.  An  ad- 
ditional reason  for  the  memorableness  of  the  Jamesian  characters 
is  the  seriousness  with  which  they  take  themselves  and  each 
other:  we  feel  that  we  are  somehow  on  essential  ground  with 
them,  even  if  the  essentiality  of  the  ground  results  in  its  shifting 
like  quicksand;  we  may  disapprove  of  Fleda  Vetch  as  a  person 
for  her  errors  and  as  a  creation  for  the  errors  of  James;  but  the  in- 
tegrity with  which  the  errors  are  made,  their  fidelity  to  the  his- 
torical context  of  which  they  are  an  essential  part,  and  in  spite  of 
the  fact  that  a  great  artist  properly  considered  ought  to  have  a 
better  understanding  than  James  displayed  of  the  defects  and 
dangers  of  his  own  historical  context,  this  integrity  and  this  fidel- 
ity in  themselves  are  unforgettable;  we  do  not  have  great  tragedy, 
but  we  at  least  share  a  real  experience,  and  the  reality  is  of  a 
quality  that  we  shall  find  but  rarely  if  at  all  in  other  novelists. 
And  finally,  we  have  only  the  loosest  conception  of  the  successful 
works  and  elements  of  James,  if  we  do  not  fully  understand  his 
kind  and  degree  of  failure,  for  the  failure  represents  the  particu- 
lar problem  with  which  he  was  struggling  to  deal— one  could  al- 
most regard  it  as  his  subject-matter. 

As  Mr.  Beach  points  out,  James's  technical  development  is  a  de- 
velopment steadily  in  the  direction  of  identifying  the  author's 
point  of  view  with  that  of  some  particular  character,  toward  the 
elimination  of  the  function  of  the  omniscient  author.  One  might 
imagine  that  the  obscurity  in  many  of  the  novels  resulted  from 
the  elimination  of  the  author  as  commentator,  from  his  resigning 
himself  to  the  point  of  view  of  his  character,  except  for  two  rea- 
sons: first,  the  character  chosen  to  provide  the  point  of  view  is 
usually  very  close  to  James  himself  in  the  quality  of  his  intelli- 
gence, and  second,  the  obscurity  is  as  obvious  in  the  early  novels, 
in  which  the  omniscient  author  is  plainly  discernible,  as  it  is  in 
the  later,  from  which  he  has  evaporated.  This  technical  aim, 
however,  seems  to  me  unquestionably  to  result  in  a  certain  vitia- 
tion of  the  prose  as  prose:  explicit  and  compact  exposition  or  de- 
scription of  any  kind  is  eliminated  from  the  later  novels,  the  mat- 
ter that  would  ordinarily  go  into  such  prose  being  broken  up  and 


diffused  in  minutely  discernible  fragments  through  conversa- 
tions and  the  miscellaneous  perceptions  of  daily  life;  the  attempt 
is  made  to  introduce  the  material  that  would  ordinarily  be  con- 
veyed in  such  prose  in  a  manner  closely  resembling  the  manner 
in  which  it  entered  the  experience,  and  perhaps  hovered  there, 
of  the  character  in  question,  so  that  we  tend  strongly  in  the  later 
novels,  so  far  as  the  prose  itself  is  concerned,  toward  the  fallacy 
of  expressive  form.  The  prose  of  The  Age  of  Innocence  or  of  The 
Valley  of  Decision  is  certainly  superior  to  the  prose  of  James;  the 
prose  of  Melville  in  such  a  passage  as  that  describing  Dr.  Cuticle 
and  his  operation,  in  White  Jacket,  in  compactness,  richness  of 
implication,  clarity  of  detail,  and  rhetorical  variety  and  mastery, 
surpasses  James  incomparably.  Mr.  Beach8  cites  the  following 
passage  from  Roderick  Hudson  as  an  example  of  the  sort  of  tra- 
ditional prose  which  James  mercifully  outgrew  in  the  later 
novels:  "Rowland's  second  guest  was  also  an  artist,  but  of  a  very 
different  type.  His  friends  called  him  Sam  Singleton;  he  was  an 
American,  and  he  had  been  in  Rome  a  couple  of  years.  He 
painted  small  'landscapes,  chiefly  in  water-color;  Rowland  had 
seen  one  of  them  in  a  shop  window,  had  liked  it  extremely  and, 
ascertaining  his  address,  had  gone  to  see  him  and  found  him  es- 
tablished in  a  very  humble  studio  near  the  Piazza  Barberini, 
where  apparently  fame  and  fortune  had  not  yet  come  his  way. 
Rowland,  treating  him  as  a  discovery,  had  bought  several  of  his 
pictures;  Singleton  made  few  speeches,  but  was  intensely  grate- 
ful. Rowland  heard  afterwards  that  when  he  first  came  to  Rome 
he  painted  worthless  daubs  and  gave  no  promise  of  talent.  Im- 
provement had  come,  however,  hand  in  hand  with  patient  in- 
dustry, and  his  talent,  though  of  a  slender  and  delicate  order,  was 
now  incontestable.  It  was  as  yet  but  scantly  recognized  and  he 
had  hard  work  to  hold  out.  Rowland  hung  his  little  water- 
colors  on  the  library  wall,  and  found  that  as  he  lived  with 
them  he  grew  very  fond  of  them.  Singleton,  short  and  spare, 
was  made  as  if  for  sitting  on  very  small  camp-stools  and  eating 
the  tiniest  luncheons.  He  had  a  transparent  brown  regard,  a 
perpetual  smile,  an  extraordinary  expression  of  modesty  and  pa- 

8  Ibid.,  page  192. 

tience.  He  listened  much  more  willingly  than  he  talked,  with  a 
little  fixed  grateful  grin;  he  blushed  when  he  spoke,  and  always 
offered  his  ideas  as  if  he  were  handing  you  useful  objects  of  your 
own  that  you  had  unconsciously  dropped;  so  that  his  credit  could 
be  at  most  for  honesty.  He  was  so  perfect  an  example  of  the  little 
noiseless  devoted  worker  whom  chance,  in  the  person  of  a  mon- 
eyed patron,  has  never  taken  by  the  hand,  that  Rowland  would 
have  liked  to  befriend  him  by  stealth/* 

This  is  not  great  prose,  but  it  is  fine  prose  and  fine  perception. 
Neither  as  prose  nor  as  characterization  will  it  suffer  by  compari- 
son with  the  portrait  of  Mrs.  Midmore  cited  earlier  in  these 
pages.  One  could  find  better  sketches  of  the  same  type  in  the 
early  novels,  and  even  as  late  as  the  Portrait;  this  type  of  prose 
can  be  developed  very  far  indeed,  as  one  can  readily  discover  by 
reading  Melville.  It  does  not  sacrifice  reality,  and  it  can  be  made 
to  possess  both  sinew  and  form.  The  mere  fact  that  this  type  of 
sketch  is  a  traditional  device  is  irrelevant  to  its  virtues;  James's 
later  method  is  equally  a  device,  and  more  obtrusively  so,  since 
we  are  forced  to  concentrate  upon  it,  and  as  a  device  it  is  in  our 
own  day  no  longer  new. 

It  would  be  easy  to  say  that  the  virtues  which  I  have  described 
are  inseparable  from  the  methods  of  style  which  I  deplore,  but  I 
doubt  it;  the  virtues  are  already  strongly  marked  in  the  early 
works,  in  which  the  later  technique  is  not  employed,  so  that  one 
has  some  justification  for  feeling  that  a  certain  maturity  of  out- 
look and  richness  of  observation  increased,  as  a  result  of  age  and 
experience,  concomitantly  with  a  defective  procedure  in  style, 
the  result  of  an  error  in  theory.  It  is  only  a  step,  in  the  matter  of 
style,  from  The  Golden  Bowl  to  Dorothy  Richardson  and  Proust, 
from  them  to  the  iridescent  trifling  of  Mrs.  Woolf,  and  from  her 
to  the  latest  Joyce;  in  fact  James  travelled  the  greater  part  of  this 
distance  when  he  wrote  The  Sense  of  the  Past.  I  do  not  deny  the 
genius  of  these  writers— if  I  did  not  feel  it,  I  should  not  consider 
it  profitable  to  cite  them— but  they  are  all,  even  Proust  by  at  least 
a  perceptible  margin,  inferior  to  James,  and  they  represent  a  pro- 
gressive decay,  an  increase  in  diffusion,  a  decrease  in  detailed 
effectiveness,  in  the  matter  of  style.  Mr.  Beach,  on  the  other  hand, 


believes  that  James's  technical  development  was  toward  perfec- 
tion; but  if  the  prose  must  be  weakenec^  in  order  to  perfect  the 
novel,  then  something  is  radically  wrong  with  the  novel  as  a 
form  of  art. 

It  is  likely  that  one  can  find  an  isolated  novel  here  and  there 
to  surpass  any  by  James;  one  might  argue  with  considerable  rea- 
son that  The  Age  of  Innocence,  partly  because  it  corrects,  as  I 
have  shown,  a  serious  defect  in  the  Jamesian  conception  of  the 
novel,  partly  because  of  its  finer  prose,  is  the  finest  single  flower 
of  the  Jamesian  art;  one  which  James  fertilized  but  would  have 
been  unable  to  bring  to  maturity.  The  Valley  of  Decision,  a 
novel  of  a  very  different  cast,  might  also  be  defended  as  superior 
to  any  single  work  by  James,  as  might  also  Billy  Budd  and  Ben- 
ito  Cereno,  which  unlike  most  of  the  work  of  Melville  are  true 
novels.  But  neither  Mrs.  Wharton  nor  Melville  can  equal  James 
in  the  vast  crowd  of  unforgettable  human  beings  whom  he 
created;  Melville,  moreover,  except  in  Billy  Budd,  Benito  Cer- 
eno,  and  Israel  Potter,  is  scarcely  a  novelist,  and  Mrs.  Wharton, 
except  in  the  two  novels  mentioned,  in  The  Custom  of  the  Coun- 
try, and  in  a  small  group  of  novelettes,  is  mediocre  when  she  is 
not  worse. 

It  is  James  himself,  as  I  have  abundantly  indicated,  who  holds 
our  attention  so  constantly  on  his  defects  of  conception.  As  I  have 
shown,  he  was  so  obsessed  with  the  problem  of  moral  judgment 
in  its  relation  to  character,  that  he  not  only  constructed  his  plots 
so  that  they  turned  almost  wholly  on  problems  of  ethical  choice, 
but  he  sought  to  isolate  the  ethical  problem  as  far  as  possible 
from  all  determining  or  qualifying  elements,  an  effort  which  in 
any  period  would  have  led  to  difficulty,  and  which  in  his  period 
would  have  been  sufficient  to  dissolve  in  complete  obscurity  any 
talent  save  one  of  the  greatest.  As  a  result  of  this  effort  at  isola- 
tion, he  accomplished  two  secondary  ends  which  have  no  bearing 
upon  the  value  of  his  art  as  such:  he  focussed  attention  forever 
upon  the  problems  of  serious  plotting,  and  in  this  respect  he 
probably  brought  about  the  greatest  single  change  in  the  practice 
of  the  novel  ever  effected  by  one  man;  and  in  addition  he  fixed 
imperishably  the  finest  quality  of  American  life  of  his  period.  In 

connection  with  this  second  accomplishment,  it  should  be  added 
that  he  himself  appears  to  have  had  but  an  imperfect  understand- 
ing of  that  quality,  so  that  he  not  only  fixed  the  defects  as  well 
as  the  virtues  of  the  quality,  but  did  so  without  the  comprehen- 
sion of  the  defects,  or  with  a  very  imperfect  comprehension,  did 
so  partly  by  representing  them,  but  also,  and  unfortunately  al- 
most more  clearly  by  embodying  them.  Regarded  only  for  the 
kind  and  degree  of  its  failure,  but  regarded  patiently  and  intelli- 
gently, his  art  is  a  social  phenomenon  equalled  in  its  interest  by 
few  others  in  the  history  of  our  nation,  and  equalled,  I  should 
imagine,  by  no  other  in  the  history  of  our  literature;  it  is  a  phe- 
nomenon as  representative  intensively  and  extensively  as  the 
career,  let  us  say,  of  John  D.  Rockefeller,  in  another  realm  of  ac- 
tion. To  understand  him,  we  must  understand  the  history  of 
which  he  is  the  culmination;  and  when  we  understand  him,  we 
have  the  key  to  most  of  the  literature  and  to  much  else  that  has 
followed  and  is  likely  to  follow. 


A  Brief  Selection  of  the  Poems  of 


Come  suddenly,  O  Lord,  or  slowly  come: 
1  wait  thy  will;  thy  servant  ready  is: 
Thou  hast  prepared  thy  follower  a  home,— 
The  heaven  in  which  Thou  dwellest,  too,  is  his. 

Come  in  the  morn,  at  noon,  or  midnight  deep; 
Come,  for  thy  servant  still  doth  watch  and  pray: 
E'en  when  the  world  around  is  sunk  in  sleep. 
I  wake  and  long  to  see  thy  glorious  day. 

I  would'not  fix  the  time,  the  day,  nor  hour, 
When  Thou  with  all  thine  angels  shalt  appear; 
When  in  thy  kingdom  Thou  shalt  come  with  power, - 
E'en  now,  perhaps,  the  promised  day  is  near! 

For  though  in  slumber  deep  the  world  may  lie, 
And  een  thy  Church  forget  thy  great  command; 
Still,  year  by  year,  thy  coming  draweth  nigh, 
And  in  its  power  thy  kingdom  is  at  hand. 

Not  in  some  future  world  alone  'twill  he, 
Beyond  the  grave,  beyond  the  bounds  of  time; 
But  on  the  earth  thy  glory  we  shall  see, 
And  share  thy  triumph,  peaceful,  pure,  sublime. 

Lord,  help  me  that  1  faint  not,  weary  grow, 
Nor  at  thy  coming  slumber,  too,  and  sleep; 
For  Thou  hast  promised,  and  full  well  I  know 
Thou  wilt  to  us  thy  word  of  promise  keep. 



Father,  I  -wait  thy  word.  The  sun  doth  stand 

Beneath  the  mingling  line  of  night  and  day, 

A  listening  servant,  waiting  thy  command 

To  roll  rejoicing  on  its  silent  way; 

The  tongue  of  time  abides  the  appointed  hour, 

Till  on  our  ears  its  solemn  warnings  fall; 

The  heavy  cloud  withholds  the  pelting  shower, 

Then  every  drop  speeds  onward  at  thy  call; 

The  bird  reposes  on  the  yielding  hough, 

With  breast  unswollen  by  the  tide  of  song; 

So  does  my  spirit  wait  thy  presence  now 

To  pour  thy  praise  in  quickening  life  along, 

Chiding  with  voice  divine  man's  lengthened  sleep. 

While  round  the  Unuttered  Word  and  Love  their  vigils  keep. 


'Tis  a  new  life;— thoughts  move  not  as  they  did, 
With  slow  uncertain  steps  across  my  mind; 
In  thronging  haste  fast  pressing  on  they  bid 
The  portals  open  to  the  viewless  wind, 
That  comes  not  save  when  in  the  dust  is  laid 
The  crown  of  pride  that  guilds  each  mortal  brow, 
And  from  before  mans  vision  melting  fade 
The  heavens  and  earth;  their  walls  are  falling  now. 
Fast  crowding  on,  each  thought  asks  utterance  strong; 
Storm-lifted  waves  swift  rushing  to  the  shore, 
On  from  the  sea  they  send  their  shouts  along, 
Back  through  the  cave-worn  rocks  their  thunders  roar; 
And  I,  a  Child  of  God  by  Christ  made  free, 
Start  from  death's  slumbers  to  eternity. 



The  night  that  has  no  star  lit  up  by  God, 

The  day  that  round  men  shines  who  still  are  blind, 

The  earth  their  grave-turned  feet  for  ages  trod, 

And  sea  swept  over  by  His  mighty  wind?— 

All  these  have  passed,  away;  the  melting  dream 

That  flitted  o'er  the  sleepers  half-shut  eye, 

When  touched  by  mornings  golden-darting  beam; 

And  he  beholds  around  the  earth  and  sky 

What  ever  real  stands;  the  rolling  spheres, 

And  heaving  billows  of  the  boundless  main, 

That  show,  though  time  is  past,  no  trace  of  years, 

And  earth  restored  he  sees  as  his  again, 

The  earth  that  fades  not,  and  the  heavens  that  stand, 

Their  strong  foundations  laid  by  God's  right  hand! 


I  would  lie  low— the  ground  on  which  men  tread- 
Swept  by  thy  Spirit  like  the  wind  of  heaven; 
An  earth,  where  gushing  springs  and  corn  for  bread 
By  me  at  every  season  should  be  given; 
Yet  not  the  water  or  the  bread  that  now 
Supplies  their  tables  with  its  daily  food, 
But  they  should  gather  fruit  from  every  bough, 
Such  as  Thou  givest  me,  and  call  it  good; 
And  water  from  the  stream  of  life  should  flow, 
By  every  dwelling  that  thy  love  has  built, 
Whose  taste  the  ransomed  of  thy  Son  shall  know, 
Whose  robes  are  washed  from  every  stain  of  guilt; 
And  men  would  own  it  was  thy  hand  that  blest, 
And  from  my  bosom  find  a  surer  rest. 



I  sit  within  my  room,  and  joy  to  find 
That  Thou,  who  always  lov'st,  art  with  me  here; 
That  1  am  never  left  by  Thee  behind, 
But  by  Thyself  Thou  keep'st  me  ever  near. 
The  fire  burns  brighter  when  with  Thee  I  look, 
And  seems  a  kinder  servant  sent  to  me; 
With  gladder  heart  I  read  thy  holy  book, 
Because  Thou  art  the  eyes  by  which  I  see; 
This  aged  chair,  that  table,  watch,  and  door 
Around  in  ready  service  ever  wait; 
Nor  can  1  ask  of  Thee  a  menial  more 
To  fill  the  measure  of  my  large  estate, 
For  Thou  thyself,  with  all  a  Fathers  care 
Where'er  I  turn,  art  ever  with  me  there. 


When  I  would  sing  of  crooked  streams  and  fields, 

On,  on  from  me  they  stretch  too  far  and  wide, 

And  at  their  look  my  song  all  powerless  yields. 

And  down  the  river  bears  me  with  its  tide. 

Amid  the  fields  I  am  a  child  again, 

The  spots  that  then  1  loved  1  love  the  more, 

My  fingers  drop  the  strangely  scrawling  pen, 

And  I  remember  nought  but  Natures  lore. 

1  plunge  me  in  the  rivers  cooling  wave, 

Or  on  the  embroidered  bank  admiring  lean, 

Now  some  endangered  insect  life  to  save, 

Now  watch  the  pictured  flowers  and  grasses  green; 

Forever  playing  where  a  boy  I  played, 

By  hill  and  grove,  by  field  and  stream  delayed. 



The  flowers  1  pass  have  eyes  that  look  at  me, 
The  birds  have  ears  that  hear  my  spirit's  voice, 
And  I  am  glad  the  leaping  brook  to  see, 
Because  it  does  at  my  light  step  rejoice. 
Come,  brothers,  all  who  tread  the  grassy  hill, 
Or  wander  thoughtless  o'er  the  blooming  fields, 
Come  learn  the  sweet  obedience  of  the  will; 
Thence  every  sight  and  sound  new  pleasure  yields. 
Nature  shall  seem  another  house  of  thine, 
When  He  who  formed  thee,  bids  it  live  and  play, 
And  in  thy  rambles  e'en  the  creeping  vine 
Shall  keep  with  thee  a  jocund  holiday, 
And  every  plant,  and  bird,  and  insect  be 
Thine  own  companions  born  for  harmony. 

(as  in  the  edition  of  1886) 

The  clear  bright  morning,  with  its  scented  air 
And  gaily  waving  flowers,  is  here  again; 
Man's  heart  is  lifted  with  the  voice  of  prayer, 
And  peace  descends,  as  falls  the  gentle  rain; 
The  tuneful  birds,  that  all  the  night  have  slept, 
Take  up  at  dawn  the  evening's  dying  lay, 
When  sleep  upon  their  eyelids  gently  crept 
And  stole  with  gentle  craft  their  song  away. 
High  overhead  the  forest's  swaying  boughs 
Sprinkle  with  drops  the  traveller  on  his  way; 
He  hears  far  off  the  tinkling  bells  of  cows 
Driven  to  pasture  at  the  break  of  day; 
With  vigorous  step  he  passes  swift  along, 
Making  the  woods  reecho  with  his  song. 



Why  art  thou  not  awake,  my  son? 
The  morning  breaks  1  formed  for  thee; 
And  I  thus  early  lay  thee  stand, 
Thy  new-awakening  life  to  see. 

Why  are  thou  not  awake,  my  son? 
The  birds  upon  the  bough  rejoice; 
And  I  thus  early  by  thee  stand, 
To  hear  with  theirs  thy  tuneful  voice. 

Why  sleep  st  thou  still?  The  laborers  all 
Are  in  my  vineyard:  hear  them  toil,— 
As  for  the  poor,  with  harvest  song 
They  treasure  up  the  wine  and  oil. 

1  come  to  wake  thee;  haste,  arise, 
Or  thou  no  share  with  Me  can  find; 
Thy  sandals  seize,  gird  on  thy  clothes, 
Or  I  must  leave  thee  far  behind. 


Wilt  Thou  not  visit  me? 
The  plant  beside  me  feels  thy  gentle  deiv, 

And  every  blade  of  grass  1  see 
From  thy  deep  earth  its  quickening  moisture  drew. 

Wilt  Thou  not  visit  me? 
Thy  morning  calls  on  me  with  cheering  tone; 

And  every  hill  and  tree 
Lend  but  one  voice,— the  voice  of  Thee  alone. 

Come,  for  I  need  thy  love, 
More  than  the  flower  the  dew  or  grass  the  rain; 


Come  gently  as  thy  holy  dove; 
And  let  me  in  thy  sight  rejoice  to  live  again. 

not  hide  from  them 
When  thy  storms  come,  though  fierce  may  be  their  wrath, 

But  bow  with  leafy  stem, 
And  strengthened  follow  on  thy  chosen  path. 

Yes,  Thou  wilt  visit  me: 
Nor  plant  nor  tree  thine  eye  delimits  so  well, 

As,  when  from  sin  set  free, 
My  spirit  loves  with  thine  in  peace  to  dwell. 


The  house  my  earthly  parent  left 

My  heavenly  parent  still  throws  down, 

For  'tis  of  air  and  sun  bereft, 

Nor  stars  its  roof  with  beauty  crown. 

He  gave  it  me,  yet  gave  it  not 
As  one  whose  gifts  are  wise  and  good; 
'Twas  lout  a  poor  and  clay-built  cot, 
And  for  a  time  the  storms  withstood. 

But  lengthening  years  and  frequent  rain 
O'ercame  its  strength:  it  tottered,  fell, 
And  left  me  homeless  here  again,— 
And  where  to  go  1  could  not  tell. 

But  soon  the  light  and  open  air 
Received  me  as  a  wandering  child, 
And  I  soon  thought  their  house  more  fair, 
And  all  my  grief  their  love  beguiled. 

Mine  was  the  grove,  the  pleasant  field 
Where  dwelt  the  flowers  1  daily  trod; 


And  there  beside  them,  too,  1  kneeled 
And  called  their  friend,  my  Father,  God. 


Still  blooming  on,  when  Summer  flowers  all  fade, 
The  golden-rods  and  asters  fill  the  glade; 
The  tokens  they  of  an  Exhaustless  Love 
That  ever  to  the  end  doth  constant  prove. 

To  one  fair  tribe  another  still  succeeds, 
As  still  the  heart  new  forms  of  beauty  needs; 
Till  these  bright  children  of  the  waning  year, 
Its  latest  born,  have  come  our  souls  to  cheer. 

They  glance  upon  us  from  their  fringed  eyes, 
And  to  their  look  our  own  in  love  replies; 
Within  our  hearts  we  find  for  them  a  place, 
As  for  the  flowers  which  early  spring-time  grace. 

Despond  not,  traveler!  On  lifes  lengthened  way, 
When  all  thy  early  friends  have  passed  away; 
Say  not,  "No  more  the  beautiful  doth  live, 
And  to  the  earth  a  bloom  and  fragrance  give." 

To  every  season  has  our  Father  given 
Some  tokens  of  his  love  to  us  from  heaven; 
Nor  leaves  us  here,  uncheered,  to  walk  alone, 
When  all  we  loved  and  prized  in  youth  have  gone. 

Let  but  thy  heart  go  forth  to  all  around, 
Still  by  thy  side  the  beautiful  is  found; 
Along  thy  path  the  autumn  flowers  shall  smile, 
And  to  its  close  lifes  pilgrimage  beguile. 



I  looked  to  find  Springs  early  flowers, 
In  spots  where  they  were  wont  to  bloom; 

But  they  had  perished  in  their  bowers; 

The  haunts  they  loved  had  proved  their  tomb! 

The  alder,  and  the  laurel  green, 

Which  sheltered  them,  had  shared  their  fate; 
And  but  the  blackened  ground  was  seen, 

Where  hid  their  swelling  buds  of  late. 

From  the  bewildered,  homeless  bird, 

Whose  half-built  nest  the  flame  destroys, 

A  low  complaint  of  wrong  I  heard, 
Against  the  thoughtless,  ruthless  boys. 

Sadly  I  heard  its  notes  complain, 

Ana  ask  the  young  its  haunts  to  spare; 

Prophetic  seemed  the  sorrowing  strain, 
Sung  oer  its  home,  but  late  so  fair! 

"No  more  with  hues  like  ocean  shell 

The  delicate  wind-flower  here  shall  blow; 
The  spot  that  loved  its  form  so  well 
Shall  ne'er  again  its  beauty  know. 

"Or,  if  it  bloom,  like  some  pale  ghost 

'Twill  haunt  the  black  and  shadeless  dell, 
Where  once  it  bloomed  a  numerous  host, 
Of  its  once  pleasant  bowers  to  tell. 

"And  coming  years  no  more  shall  find 

The  laurel  green  upon  the  hills; 
The  frequent  fire  leaves  naught  behind, 
But  een  the  very  roots  it  kills. 


"No  more  upon  the  turnpikes  side 

The  rose  shall  shed  its  sweet  perfume; 
The  travelers  joy,  the  summers  pride, 
Will  share  with  them  a  common  doom. 

"No  more  shall  these  returning  fling 

Round  childhood's  home  a  heavenly  charm, 
With  song  of  bird  in  early  spring, 

To  glad  the  heart  and  save  from  harm.)f 


I  saw  one  horn,  yet  he  was  of  the  dead; 

Long  since  the  spirit  ceased  to  give  us  birth; 
For  lust  to  sin,  and  sin  to  death,  had  led, 

And  now  its  children  people  o'er  the  earth. 

And  yet  he  thought  he  lived,  and  as  he  grew 

Looked  round  upon  the  world  and  called  it  fair; 

For  of  the  heaven  he  lost  he  never  knew, 
Though  oft  he  pined  in  spirit  to  he  there. 

And  he  lived  on,  the  earth  became  his  home, 
Nor  learnt  he  aught  of  those  who  came  before; 

For  they  had  ceased  to  wish  from  thence  to  roam, 
And  for  the  better  land  could  not  deplore. 

Time  passed,  and  he  was  buried;  lo!  the  dust 
From  which  he  first  was  taken  him  received; 

Yet  in  his  dying  hour  ne'er  ceased  his  trust, 

And  still  his  soul  for  something  heavenly  grieved. 

And  we  will  hope  that  there  is  One  who  gave 
The  rest  he  sighed  for,  but  the  world  denied; 

That  yet  his  voice  is  heard  beyond  the  grave, 
That  he  yet  lives  who  to  our  vision  died. 



Upon  the  Plymouth  shore  the  -wild  rose  blooms, 
As  when  the  Pilgrims  lived  beside  the  hay, 
And  scents  the  morning  air  with  sweet  perfumes; 
Though  new  this  hour>  more  ancient  far  than  they; 
More  ancient  than  the  wild,  yet  friendly  race. 
That  roved  the  land  before  the  Pilgrims  came, 
And  here  for  ages  found  a  dwelling-place, 
Of  whom  our  histories  tell  us  but  a  name! 
Though  new  this  hour,  out  from  the  past  it  springs, 
Telling  this  summer  morning  of  earth's  prime; 
And  happy  visions  of  the  future  brings, 
That  reach  beyond,  een  to  the  verge  of  time; 
Wreathing  earths  children  in  one  flowery  chain 
Of  love  and  beauty,  ever  to  remain. 


Man  has  forgot  his  origin;  in  vain 

He  searches  for  the  record  of  his  race 

In  ancient  books,  or  seeks  with  toil  to  gain 

From  the  deep  cave,  or  rocks,  some  primal  trace. 

And  some  have  fancied,  from  a  higher  sphere, 

Forgetful  of  his  origin,  he  came, 

To  dwell  awhile  a  wandering  exile  here, 

Subject  to  sense,  another,  yet  the  same. 

With  mind  bewildered,  weak,  how  should  he  know 

The  Source  Divine  from  whom  his  being  springs? 

The  darkened  spirit  does  its  shadow  throw 

On  written  record  and  on  outward  things, 

That  else  might  plainly  to  his  thought  reveal 

The  wondrous  truths  which  now  they  but  conceal. 



' Tis  near  the  morning  watch:  the  dim  lamp  burns, 
But  scarcely  shows  how  dark  the  slumbering  street; 
No  sound  of  life  the  silent  mart  returns; 
No  friends  from  house  to  house  their  neighbors  greet. 
It  is  the  sleefy  of  death,— a  deeper  sleep 
Than  e'er  before  on  mortal  eyelids  fell; 
No  stars  above  the  gloom  their  places  keep; 
No  faithful  watchmen  of  the  morning  tell; 
Yet  still  they  slumber  on,  though  rising  day 
Hath  through  their  windows  poured  the  awakening  light; 
Or,  turning  in  their  sluggard  trances,  say,— 
"There  yet  are  many  hours  to  fill  the  night." 
They  rise  not  yet;  while  on  the  Bridegroom  goes 
Till  He  the  day's  bright  gates  forever  on  them  close. 


The  prison-house  is  full;  there  is  no  cell 
But  hath  its  prisoner  laden  with  his  chains; 
And  yet  they  live  as  though  their  life  was  well, 
Nor  of  its  burdening  sin  the  soul  complains; 
Thou  dost  not  see  where  thou  hast  lived  so  long,— 
The  place  is  called  the  skull  where  thou  dost  tread. 
Why  laugh' st  thou,  then,  why  sing  the  sportive  song, 
As  if  thou  livest,  and  know'st  not  thou  art  dead. 
Yes,  thou  art  dead,  the  morn  breaks  o'er  thee  now,— 
Where  is  thy  Father,  He  who  gave  thee  birth? 
Thou  art  a  severed  limb,  a  barren  bough, 
Thou  sleepest  in  deep  caverns  in  the  earth. 
Awake!  thou  hast  a  glorious  race  to  run; 
Put  on  thy  strength,  thou  hast  not  yet  begun. 



Tis  to  yourself  I  speak;  you  cannot  know 

Him  -whom  I  call  in  speaking  such  a  one, 

For  you  beneath  the  earth  lie  buried  low, 

Which  he  alone  as  living  walks  upon: 

You  may  at  times  have  heard  him  speak  to  you, 

And  often  wished  perchance  that  you  were  he; 

And  I  must  ever  wish  that  it  were  true, 

And  then  you  could  hold  fellowship  with  me: 

But  now  you  hear  us  talk  as  strangers,  met 

Above  the  room  wherein  you  lie  abed; 

A  word  perhaps  loud  spoken  you  may  get, 

Or  hear  our  feet  when  heavily  they  tread; 

But  he  who  speaks,  or  him  who's  spoken  to, 

Must  both  remain  as  strangers  still  to  you. 


Thou  art  not  yet  at  home;  perhaps  thy  feet 

Are  on  the  threshold  of  thy  leathers  door, 

But  still  thy  journey  is  not  there  complete, 

If  thou  canst  add  to  it  but  one  step  more; 

Tis  not  thy  house  which  thou  with  feet  can  reach, 

'Tis  where  when  wearied  they  will  enter  not, 

But  step  beneath  an  earthly  roof,  where  each 

May  for  a  time  find  comfort  in  his  lot; 

Then  called  to  wander  soon  again  must  mourn 

That  such  frail  shelter  they  should  call  relief; 

And  onward  seek  again  that  distant  bourne, 

The  home  of  all  the  family  of  grief, 

Whose  doors  by  day  and  night  stand  open  wide, 

For  all  who  enter  there  shall  evermore  abide. 



The  bitterness  of  death  is  on  me  now, 

Before  me  stands  its  dark  unclosing  door; 

Yet  to  Thy  will  submissive  still  I  bow, 

And  follow  Him  who  for  me  went  before; 

The  tomb  cannot  contain  me  though  I  die, 

For  His  strong  love  awakes  its  sleeping  dead, 

And  bids  them  through  Himself  ascend  on  high 

To  Him  who  is  of  all  the  living  Head; 

1  gladly  enter  through  the  gloomy  walls, 

Where  they  have  passed  who  loved  their  Master  here; 

The  voice  they  heard,  to  me  it  onward  calls, 

And  can  when  faint  my  sinking  spirit  cheer; 

And  from  the  joy  on  earth  it  now  has  given 

Lead  on  to  joy  eternal  in  the  heaven. 


The  Anatomy  of 



Is  IT  POSSIBLE  to  say  that  Poem  A  (one  of  Donne's  Holy  Son- 
nets,, or  one  of  the  poems  of  Jonson  or  of  Shakespeare)  is  better 
than  Poem  B  (Collins'  Ode  to  Evening)  or  vice  versa? 

If  not,  is  it  possible  to  say  that  either  of  these  is  better  than 
Poem  C  (The  Cremation  of  Sam  Magee,  or  something  com- 

If  the  answer  is  no  in  both  cases,  then  any  poem  is  as  good  as 
any  other.  If  this  is  true,  then  all  poetry  is  worthless;  but  this 
obviously  is  not  true,  for  it  is  contrary  to  all  our  experience. 

If  the  answer  is  yes  in  both  cases,  then  there  follows  the  ques- 
tion of  whether  the  answer  implies  merely  that  one  poem  is  better 
than  another  for  the  speaker,  or  whether  it  means  that  one  poem 
is  intrinsically  better  than  another.  If  the  former,  then  we  are 
impressionists,  which  is  to  say  relativists;  and  are  either  mystics  of 
the  type  of  Emerson,  or  hedonists  of  the  type  of  Stevens  and 
Ransom.  If  the  latter,  then  we  assume  that  constant  principles 
govern  the  poetic  experience,  and  that  the  poem  (as  likewise  the 
judge)  must  be  judged  in  relationship  to  those  principles.  It  is 
important,  therefore,  to  discover  the  consequences  of  assuming 
each  of  these  positions. 

If  our  answer  to  the  first  question  is  no  and  to  the  second  yes, 
then  we  are  asserting  that  we  can  distinguish  between  those 
poems  which  are  of  the  canon  and  those  which  are  not,  but 
that  within  the  canon  all  judgment  is  impossible.  This  view,  if 
adopted,  will  require  serious  elucidation,  for  on  the  face  of  it,  it 
appears  inexplicable.  On  the  other  hand,  one  cannot  deny  that 


within  the  canon  judgment  will  become  more  difficult,  for  the 
nearer  two  poems  may  be  to  the  highest  degrees  of  excellence, 
the  harder  it  will  be  to  choose  between  them.  Two  poems,  in 
fact,  might  be  so  excellent  that  there  would  be  small  profit  in 
endeavoring  to  say  that  one  was  better,  but  one  could  arrive  at 
this  conclusion  only  after  a  careful  examination  of  both. 


If  we  accept  the  view  that  one  poem  can  be  regarded  as  better 
than  another,  the  question  then  arises  whether  this  judgment 
is  a  matter  of  inexplicable  intuition,  or  whether  it  is  a  question 
of  intuition  that  can  be  explained,  and  consequently  guided  and 
improved  by  rational  elucidation. 

If  we  accept  the  view  that  the  judgment  in  question  is  inex- 
plicable, then  we  are  again  forced  to  confess  ourselves  impres- 
sionists and  relativists,  unless  we  can  show  that  the  intuitions  of 
all  men  agree  at  all  times,  or  that  the  intuitions  of  one  man  are 
invariably  right  and  those  of  all  others  wrong  whenever  they 
differ.  We  obviously  can  demonstrate  neither  of  these  proposi- 

If  we  start,  then,  with  the  proposition  that  one  poem  may  be 
intrinsically  superior  to  another,  we  are  forced  to  account  for 
differences  of  opinion  regarding  it.  If  two  critics  differ,  it  is  pos- 
sible that  one  is  right  and  the  other  wrong,  more  likely  that  both 
are  partly  right  and  partly  wrong,  but  in  different  respects: 
neither  the  native  gifts  nor  the  education  of  any  man  have  ever 
been  wholly  adequate  to  many  of  the  critical  problems  he  will 
encounter,  and  no  two  men  are  ever  the  same  in  these  respects 
or  in  any  others.  On  the  other  hand,  although  the  critic  should 
display  reasonable  humility  and  caution,  it  is  only  fair  to  add  that 
few  men  possess  either  the  talent  or  the  education  to  justify  their 
being  taken  very  seriously,  even  of  those  who  are  nominally  pro- 
fessional students  of  these  matters. 

But  if  it  is  possible  by  rational  elucidation  to  give  a  more  or 
less  clear  account  of  what  one  finds  in  a  poem  and  why  one 


approves  or  disapproves,  then  communication  between  two 
critics,  though  no  doubt  imperfect,  becomes  possible,  and  it  be- 
comes possible  that  they  may  in  some  measure  correct  each  other's 
errors  and  so  come  more  near  to  a  true  judgment  of  the  poem. 


If  rational  communication  about  poetry  is  to  take  place,  it  is 
necessary  first  to  determine  what  we  mean  by  a  poem. 

A  poem  is  first  of  all  a  statement  in  words. 

But  it  differs  from  all  such  statements  of  a  purely  philosoph- 
ical or  theoretical  nature,  in  that  it  has  by  intention  a  controlled 
content  of  feeling.  In  this  respect,  it  does  not  differ  from  many 
works  written  in  prose,  however. 

A  poem  differs  from  a  work  written  in  prose  by  virtue  of  its 
being  composed  in  verse.  The  rhythm  of  verse  permits  the  ex- 
pression of  more  powerful  feeling  than  is  possible  in  prose  when 
such  feeling  is  needed,  and  it  permits  at  all  times  the  expression 
of  finer  shades  of  feeling. 

A  poem,  then,  is  a  statement  in  words  in  which  special  pains 
arc  taken  with  the  expression  of  feeling.  This  description  is 
merely  intended  to  distinguish  the  poem  from  other  kinds  of 
writing;  it  is  not  offered  as  a  complete  description. 


What,  however,  are  words? 

They  arc  audible  sounds,  or  their  visual  symbols,  invented 
by  man  to  communicate  his  thoughts  and  feelings.  Each  word 
has  a  conceptual  content,  however  slight;  each  word,  exclusive, 
perhaps,  of  the  particles,  communicates  vague  associations  of 

The  word  fire  communicates  a  concept;  it  also  connotes  very 
vaguely  certain  feelings,  depending  on  the  context  in  which 
we  happen  to  place  it— depending,  for  example,  on  whether  we 
happen  to  think  of  a  fire  on  a  hearth,  in  a  furnace,  or  in  a  forest. 


These  feelings  may  be  rendered  more  and  more  precise  as  we 
render  the  context  more  and  more  precise;  as  we  come  more  and 
more  near  to  completing  and  perfecting  our  poem. 


But  if  the  poem,  as  compared  to  prose,  pays  especial  attention 
to  feeling,  are  we  to  assume  that  the  rational  content  of  the  poem 
is  unimportant  to  its  success? 

The  rational  content  cannot  be  eliminated  from  words;  con- 
sequently the  rational  content  cannot  be  eliminated  from  poetry. 
It  is  there.  If  it  is  unsatisfactory  in  itself,  a  part  of  the  poem  is  un- 
satisfactory; the  poem  is  thus  damaged  beyond  argument.  If  we 
deny  this,  we  must  surely  explain  ourselves  very  fully. 

If  we  admit  this,  we  are  faced  with  another  problem:  is  it  con- 
ceivable that  rational  content  and  feeling-content  may  both  be 
perfect,  and  yet  that  they  may  be  unrelated  to  each  other,  or  im- 
perfectly related?  To  me  this  is  inconceivable,  because  the  emo- 
tional content»of  words  is  generated  by  our  experience  with  the 
conceptual  content,  so  that  a  relationship  is  necessary. 

This  fact  of  the  necessity  of  such  relationship  may  fairly  re- 
turn us  for  a  moment  to  the  original  question:  whether  imper- 
fection of  rational  content  damages  the  entire  poem.  If  there  is  a 
necessary  relationship  between  concept  and  feeling,  and  concept 
is  unsatisfactory,  then  feeling  must  be  damaged  by  way  of  the 


If  there  is  a  relationship  between  concept  and  feeling,  what  is 
the  nature  of  that  relationship? 

To  answer  this,  let  us  return  to  the  basic  unit,  the  word.  The 
concept  represented  by  the  word,  motivates  the  feeling  which 
the  word  communicates.  It  is  the  concept  of  fire  which  generates 
the  feelings  communicated  by  the  word,  though  the  sound  of  the 
word  may  modify  these  feelings  very  subtly,  as  may  other  acci- 
dental qualities,  especially  if  the  word  be  used  skillfully  in  a 


given  context.  The  accidental  qualities  of  a  word,  however,  such 
as  its  literary  history,  for  example,  can  only  modify,  cannot  essen- 
tially change,  for  these  will  be  governed  ultimately  by  the  con- 
cept; that  is,  fire  will  seldom  be  used  to  signify  plum-blossom, 
and  so  will  have  few  opportunities  to  gather  connotations  from 
the  concept,  plum-blossom.  The  relationship,  in  the  poem,  be- 
tween rational  statement  and  feeling,  is  thus  seen  to  be  that  of 
motive  to  emotion. 


But  has  not  this  reasoning  brought  us  back  to  the  proposition 
that  all  poems  are  equally  good?  For  if  each  word  motivates  its 
own  feeling,  because  of  its  intrinsic  nature,  will  not  any  rational 
statement,  since  it  is  composed  of  words,  motivate  the  feeling 
exactly  proper  to  it? 

This  is  not  true,  for  a  good  many  reasons,  of  which  I  shall 
enumerate  only  a  few  of  the  more  obvious.  In  making  a  rational 
statement,  in  purely  theoretical  prose,  we  find  that  our  state- 
ment may  be  loose  or  exact,  depending  upon  the  relationships  of 
the  words  to  each  other.  The  precision  of  a  word  depends  to  some 
extent  upon  its  surroundings.  This  is  true  likewise  with  respect 
to  the  connotations  of  words.  Two  words,  each  of  which  has 
several  usably  close  rational  synonyms,  may  reinforce  and  clarify 
each  other  with  respect  to  their  connotations  or  they  may  not 
do  so. 

Let  me  illustrate  with  a  simple  example  from  Browning's 
Serenade  at  the  Villa: 

So  wore  night;  the  East  was  gray, 

White  the  broad-faced  hemlock  flowers. 

The  lines  are  marred  by  a  crowding  of  long  syllables  and  difficult 
consonants,  but  they  have  great  beauty  in  spite  of  the  fault.  What 
I  wish  to  point  out,  for  the  sake  of  my  argument,  is  the  relation- 
ship between  the  words  wore  and  gray.  The  verb  wore  means 
literally  that  the  night  passed,  but  it  carries  with  it  connotations 


of  exhaustion  and  attrition  which  belong  to  the  condition  of  the 
protagonist;  and  grayness  is  a  color  which  we  associate  with  such 
a  condition.  If  we  change  the  phrase  to  read:  "Thus  night 
passed/*  we  shall  have  the  same  rational  meaning,  and  a  meter 
quite  as  respectable,  but  no  trace  of  the  power  of  the  line:  the 
connotation  of  wore  will  be  lost,  and  the  connotation  of  gray  will 
remain  merely  in  a  state  of  ineffective  potentiality.  The  pro- 
tagonist in  seeing  his  feeling  mirrored  in  the  landscape  is  not 
guilty  of  motivating  his  feeling  falsely,  for  we  know  his  general 
motive  from  the  poem  as  a  whole;  he  is  expressing  a  portion  of 
the  feeling  motivated  by  the  total  situation  through  a  more  or  less 
common  psychological  phenomenon.  If  the  poem  were  such, 
however,  that  we  did  not  know  why  the  night  wore  instead  of 
passed,  we  should  have  just  cause  for  complaint;  in  fact,  most  of 
the  strength  of  the  word  would  probably  be  lost.  The  second  line 
contains  other  fine  effects,  immediately  with  reference  to  the 
first  line,  ultimately  with  reference  to  the  theme;  I  leave  the  reader 
to  analyze  them  for  himself,  but  he  will  scarcely  succeed  without 
the  whole  poenl  before  him. 

Concepts,  as  represented  by  particular  words,  are  affected  by 
connotations  due  to  various  and  curious  accidents.  A  word  may 
gather  connotations  from  its  use  in  folk-poetry,  in  formal  poetry, 
in  vulgar  speech,  or  in  technical  prose:  a  single  concept  might 
easily  be  represented  by  four  words  with  these  distinct  histories; 
and  any  one  of  the  words  might  prove  to  be  proper  in  a  given 
poetic  context.  Words  gain  connotation  from  etymological  acci- 
dents. Something  of  this  may  be  seen  in  the  English  word  out- 
rage, in  which  is  commonly  felt,  in  all  likelihood,  something 
associated  with  rage,  although  there  is  no  rage  whatever  in  the 
original  word.  Similarly  the  word  urchin,  in  modern  English, 
seldom  connotes  anything  related  to  hedgehogs,  or  to  the  familiars 
of  the  witches,  by  whose  intervention  the  word  arrived  at  its 
modern  meaning  and  feeling.  Yet  the  connotation  proper  to  any 
stage  in  the  history  of  such  a  word  might  be  resuscitated,  or  a 
blend  of  connotations  effected,  by  skillful  use.  Further,  the  con- 
notation of  a  word  may  be  modified  very  strongly  by  its  function 

in  the  metrical  structure,  a  matter  which  I  shall  discuss  at  length 
in  connection  with  the  theories  of  Ransom. 

This  is  enough  to  show  that  exact  motivation  of  feeling  by 
concept  is  not  inherent  in  any  rational  statement.  Any  rational 
statement  will  govern  the  general  possibilities  of  feeling  deriv- 
able from  it,  but  the  task  of  the  poet  is  to  adjust  feeling  to  motive 
precisely.  He  has  to  select  words  containing  not  only  the  right 
relationships  within  themselves,  but  the  right  relationships  to 
each  other.  The  task  is  very  difficult;  and  this  is  no  doubt  the 
reason  why  the  great  poetry  of  a  great  poet  is  likely  to  be  very 
small  in  bulk. 


Is  it  not  possible,  however,  to  escape  from  this  relationship  of 
motive  to  emotion  by  confining  ourselves  very  largely  to  those 
words  which  denote  emotion:  love,  envy,  anger,  and  the  like? 

This  is  not  possible,  for  these  words,  like  others,  represent 
concepts.  If  we  should  confine  ourselves  strictly  to  such  a  vocabu- 
lary, we  should  merely  write  didactic  poetry:  poetry  about  love 
in  general,  or  about  anger  in  general.  The  emotion  communi- 
cated would  result  from  our  apprehension  of  the  ideas  in  ques- 
tion. Such  poetry  is  perfectly  legitimate,  but  it  is  only  one  kind  of 
poetry,  and  it  is  scarcely  the  kind  which  the  Romantic  theorist 
is  endeavoring  to  define. 

Such  poetry  has  frequently  been  rendered  particular  by  the 
use  of  allegory.  The  playful  allegorizing  of  minor  amoristic 
themes  which  one  encounters  in  the  Renaissance  and  which 
is  possibly  descended  from  certain  neo-Platonic  elements  in 
medieval  poetry  may  serve  as  illustration.  Let  us  consider  these 
and  the  subsequent  lines  by  Thomas  Lodge: 

Love  in  my  bosom  like  a  bee 

Doth  suck  his  sweet; 
Now  with  his  wings  he  plays  with  me, 

Now  with  his  feet. 


Love  itself  is  a  very  general  idea  and  might  include  many  kinds 
of  experience;  the  idea  is  limited  by  this  allegory  to  the  senti- 
mental and  sensual,  but  we  still  have  an  idea,  the  subdivision  of 
the  original  idea,  and  the  feeling  must  be  appropriate  to  the  con- 
cept. The  concept  is  rendered  concrete  by  the  image  of  Cupid, 
whose  actions,  in  turn,  are  rendered  visible  by  comparison  to  the 
bee:  it  is  these  actions  which  make  the  poem  a  kind  of  anticipa- 
tory meditation  on  more  or  less  sensual  love,  a  meditation  which 
by  its  mere  tone  of  expression  keeps  the  subject  in  its  proper  place 
as  a  very  minor  one.  Sometimes  the  emphasis  is  on  the  mere 
description  of  the  bee,  sometimes  on  the  description  of  Cupid, 
sometimes  on  the  lover's  feeling;  but  the  feeling  motivated  in  any 
passage  is  governed  by  this  emphasis.  The  elements,  once  they 
are  united  in  the  poem,  are  never  really  separated,  of  course.  In 
so  far  as  the  poet  departs  from  his  substantial  theme  in  the  direc- 
tion of  mere  bees  and  flowers,  he  will  achieve  what  Ransom  calls 
irrelevance;  but  if  there  is  much  of  this  the  poem  will  be  weak- 
ened. Whether  he  so  departs  or  not,  the  relation  of  motive  to 
emotion  must  rehiain  the  same,  within  each  passage.  I  have  dis- 
cussed this  problem  in  my  essay  on  Ransom. 

A  common  romantic  practice  is  to  use  words  denoting  emo- 
tions, but  to  use  them  loosely  and  violently,  as  if  the  very  careless- 
ness expressed  emotion.  Another  is  to  make  a  general  statement, 
but  seem  to  refer  it  to  a  particular  occasion,  which,  however,  is 
never  indicated:  the  poet  thus  seems  to  avoid  the  didactic,  yet  he 
is  not  forced  to  understand  the  particular  motive.  Both  these 
faults  may  be  seen  in  these  lines  from  Shelley: 

Out  of  the  day  and  night 
A  joy  has  taken  flight; 

Fresh  spring,  and  summer,  and  winter  hoar, 
Move  my  faint  heart  with  grief,  but  with  delight 
No  more— oh,  never  more. 

The  poet's  intention  is  so  vague,  however,  that  he  achieves  noth- 
ing but  stereotypes  of  a  very  crude  kind. 

The  Romantics  often  tried  other  devices.  For  example,  it 
would  be  possible  to  write  a  poem  on  fear  in  general,  but  to  avoid 
in  some  measure  the  effect  of  the  purely  didactic  by  illustrating 
the  emotion  along  the  way  with  various  experiences  which  might 
motivate  fear.  There  is  a  danger  here,  though  it  is  merely  a  danger, 
that  the  general  idea  may  not  dominate  the  poem,  and  that  the 
poem  may  thus  fall  apart  into  a  group  of  poems  on  particular  ex- 
periences. There  is  the  alternative  danger,  that  the  particular 
quality  of  the  experiences  may  be  so  subordinated  to  the  illustra- 
tive function  of  the  experiences,  that  within  each  illustration  there 
is  merely  a  stereotyped  and  not  a  real  relationship  of  motive  to 
feeling:  this  occurs  in  Collins'  Ode  to  Fear,  though  a  few  lines 
in  the  Epode  come  surprisingly  to  life.  But  the  methods  which  I 
have  just  described  really  offer  no  semblance  of  an  escape  from 
the  theory  of  motivation  which  I  am  defending. 

Another  Romantic  device,  if  it  is  conscious  enough  to  be  called 
a  device,  is  to  offer  instead  of  a  defensible  motive  a  false  one, 
usually  culled  from  landscape.  This  kind  of  writing  represents  a 
tacit  admission  of  the  principle  of  motivation  which  I  am  defend- 
ing, but  a  bad  application  of  the  principle.  It  results  in  the  kind 
of  writing  which  I  have  called  pseudo-reference  in  my  volume, 
Primitivism  and  Decadence.  One  cannot  believe,  for  example, 
that  Wordsworth's  passions  were  charmed  away  by  a  look  at  the 
daffodils,  or  that  Shelley's  were  aroused  by  the  sight  of  the  leaves 
blown  about  in  the  autumn  wind.  A  motive  is  offered,  and  the 
poet  wants  us  to  accept  it,  but  we  recognize  it  as  inadequate.  In 
such  a  poem  there  may  be  fragments  of  good  description,  which 
motivate  a  feeling  more  or  less  purely  appropriate  to  the  objects 
described,  and  these  fragments  may  sustain  our  liking  for  the 
poem:  this  happens  in  Collins'  Ode  to  Evening;  but  one  will  find 
also  an  account  of  some  kind  of  emotion  essentially  irrelevant  to 
the  objects  described,  along  with  the  attempt,  more  or  less  ex- 
plicit, to  deduce  the  emotion  from  the  object. 

There  remains  the  method  of  the  Post-Romantics,  whether 
French  Symbolists  or  American  Experimentalists:  the  method 
of  trying  to  extinguish  the  rational  content  of  language  while 


retaining  the  content  of  association.  This  method  I  have  dis- 
cussed in  Primitivism  and  Decadence,  and  I  shall  discuss  it  again 
in  this  book. 


The  relationship  in  the  poem  of  rational  meaning  to  feeling  we 
have  seen  to  be  that  of  motive  to  emotion;  and  we  have  seen  that 
this  must  be  a  satisfactory  relationship.  How  do  we  determine 
whether  such  a  relationship  is  satisfactory?  We  determine  it  by 
an  act  of  moral  judgment.  The  question  then  arises  whether 
moral  judgments  can  be  made,  whether  the  concept  of  morality 
is  or  is  not  an  illusion. 

If  morality  can  be  considered  real,  if  a  theory  of  morality  can 
be  said  to  derive  from  reality,  it  is  because  it  guides  us  toward  the 
greatest  happiness  which  the  accidents  of  life  permit:  that  is, 
toward  the  fullest  realization  of  our  nature,  in  the  Aristotelian  or 
Thomistic  sense.  But  is  there  such  a  thing,  abstractly  considered, 
as  full  realization  of  our  nature? 

To  avoid  discussion  of  too  great  length,  let  us  consider  the 
opposite  question:  is  there  such  a  thing  as  obviously  unfulfilled 
human  nature?  Obviously  there  is.  We  need  only  turn  to  the 
feeble-minded,  who  cannot  think  and  so  cannot  perceive  or  feel 
with  any  clarity;  or  to  the  insane,  who  sometimes  perceive  and 
feel  with  great  intensity,  but  whose  feelings  and  perceptions  are 
so  improperly  motivated  that  they  are  classed  as  illusions.  At 
slightly  higher  levels,  the  criminal,  the  dissolute,  the  unscrupu- 
lously selfish,  and  various  types  of  neurotics  are  likely  to  arouse 
but  little  disagreement  as  examples. 

Now  if  we  are  able  to  recognize  the  fact  of  insanity— if  in  fact 
we  are  forced  to  recognize  it— that  is,  the  fact  of  the  obvious  mal- 
adjustment of  feeling  to  motive,  we  are  forced  to  admit  the  pos- 
sibility of  more  accurate  adjustment,  and,  by  necessary  sequence, 
of  absolutely  accurate  adjustment,  even  though  we  admit  the 
likelihood  that  most  people  will  attain  to  a  final  adjustment  but 
very  seldom  indeed.  We  can  guide  ourselves  toward  such  an 


adjustment  in  life,  as  in  art,  by  means  of  theory  and  the  critical 
examination  of  special  instances;  but  the  final  act  of  judgment  is 
in  both  life  and  art  a  unique  act— it  is  a  relationship  between  two 
elements,  the  rational  understanding  and  the  feeling,  of  which 
only  one  is  classificatory  and  of  which  the  other  has  infinite  pos- 
sibilities of  variation. 


If  the  final  act  of  adjustment  is  a  unique  act  of  judgment,  can 
we  say  that  it  is  more  or  less  right,  provided  it  is  demonstrably 
within  the  general  limits  prescribed  by  the  theory  of  morality 
which  has  led  to  it?  The  answer  to  this  question  is  implicit  in 
what  has  preceded;  in  fact  the  answer  resembles  exactly  that 
reached  at  the  end  of  the  first  problem  examined.  We  can  say 
that  it  is  more  or  less  nearly  right.  If  extreme  deviation  from  right 
judgment  is  obvious,  then  there  is  such  a  thing  as  right  judgment. 
The  mere  fact  that  life  may  be  conducted  in  a  fairly  satisfactory 
manner,  by  means  of  inaccurate  judgment  within  certain  limits, 
and  that  few  people  ever  bother  to  refine  their  judgment  beyond 
the  stage  which  enables  them  to  remain  largely  within  those 
limits,  does  not  mean  that  accurate  judgment  has  no  reality.  Im- 
plicit in  all  that  has  preceded  is  the  concept  that  in  any  moral 
situation,  there  is  a  right  judgment  as  an  ultimate  possibility;  that 
the  human  judge,  or  actor,  will  approximate  it  more  or  less  nearly; 
that  the  closeness  of  his  approximation  will  depend  upon  the 
accuracy  of  his  rational  understanding  and  of  his  intuition,  and 
upon  the  accuracy  of  their  interaction  upon  each  other. 


Nothing  has  thus  far  been  said  about  human  action,  yet  morality 
is  supposed  to  guide  human  action.  And  if  art  is  moral,  there 
should  be  a  relationship  between  art  and  human  action. 

The  moral  judgment,  whether  good,  bad,  or  indifferent,  is 
commonly  the  prelude  and  instigation  to  action.  Hastily  or  care- 


fully,  intelligently  or  otherwise,  one  arrives  at  some  kind  of 
general  idea  of  a  situation  calling  for  action,  and  one's  idea  moti- 
vates one's  feeling:  the  act  results.  The  part  played  by  will,  or  the 
lack  of  it,  between  judgment  and  act,  the  possibility  that  action 
may  be  frustrated  by  some  constitutional  or  habitual  weakness 
or  tendency,  such  as  cowardice  or  a  tendency  to  anger,  in  a  per- 
son of  a  fine  speculative  or  poetic  judgment,  are  subjects  for  a 
treatise  on  ethics  or  psychology;  a  treatise  on  poetry  stops  with 
the  consideration  of  the  speculative  judgment,  which  reaches  its 
best  form  and  expression  in  poetry.  In  the  situations  of  daily  life, 
one  does  not,  as  a  rule,  write  a  poem  before  acting:  one  makes  a 
more  rapid  and  simple  judgment.  But  if  the  poem  does  not 
individually  lead  to  a  particular  act,  it  does  not  prevent  action.  It 
gives  us  a  better  way  of  judging  representative  acts  than  we 
should  otherwise  have.  It  is  thus  a  civilizing  influence:  it  trains 
our  power  of  judgment,  and  should,  I  imagine,  affect  the  quality 
of  daily  judgments  and  actions* 


What,  then,  is  the  nature  of  the  critical  process^ 

It  will  consist  (1)  of  the  statement  of  such  historical  or  bio- 
graphical knowledge  as  may  be  necessary  in  order  to  understand 
the  mind  and  method  of  the  writer;  (2)  of  such  analysis  of  his 
literary  theories  as  we  may  need  to  understand  and  evaluate  what 
he  is  doing;  (3)  of  a  rational  critique  of  the  paraphrasable  con- 
tent (roughly,  the  motive)  of  the  poem;  (4)  of  a  rational  critique 
of  the  feeling  motivated— that  is,  of  the  details  of  style,  as  seen 
in  language  and  technique;  and  (5)  of  the  final  act  of  judgment, 
a  unique  act,  the  general  nature  of  which  can  be  indicated,  but 
which  cannot  be  communicated  precisely,  since  it  consists  in  re- 
ceiving from  the  poet  his  own  final  and  unique  judgment  of  his 
matter  and  in  judging  that  judgment.  It  should  be  noted  that  the 
purpose  of  the  first  four  processes  is  to  limit  as  narrowly  as  pos- 
sible the  region  in  which  the  final  unique  act  is  to  occur. 

In  the  actual  writing  of  criticism,  a  given  task  may  not  require 
all  of  these  processes,  or  may  not  require  that  all  be  given  equal 


emphasis;  or  it  may  be  that  in  connection  with  a  certain  writer, 
whether  because  of  the  nature  of  the  writer  or  because  of  the 
way  in  which  other  critics  have  treated  him  previously,  one  or 
two  of  these  processes  must  be  given  so  much  emphasis  that 
others  must  be  neglected  for  lack  of  space.  These  are  practical 
matters  to  be  settled  as  the  occasions  arise. 


or  The  Creation  of  Confusion 


HENRY  ADAMS  saw  modern  history  as  a  progress  from  unified 
understanding,  or  the  illusion  of  such,  in  the  century  following 
the  year  1150,  toward  the  dispersion  of  understanding  and  force 
in  the  twentieth  century;  and  he  saw  himself  as  the  product  of 
an  earlier  New  England.  In  regard  to  himself  he  was  correct; 
and  as  for  modern  history,  his  view  of  it,  though  scarcely  defen- 
sible, provides  a  clue  to  certain  historical  processes  of  which  the 
history  of  New  England  is  perhaps  the  most  dramatic  single 

The  history  immediately  relevant  to  an  understanding  of 
Adams'  mind  might  be  said  to  begin  with  the  first  great  theo- 
logical critics  of  Aquinas,  especially  with  Ockham.  Aquinas 
endeavored  as  far  as  possible  to  establish  a  separation  between 
philosophy  and  theology;  philosophy  was  guided  by  natural  rea- 
son, theology  was  derived  from  Revelation.  But  he  believed  that 
philosophical  knowledge  was  possible,  and  in  his  pursuit  of  it,  he 
composed  the  most  complete  and  lucid  critique  of  previous 
philosophy  that  had  been  made,  and  the  most  thorough  and 
defensible  moral  and  philosophical  system,  in  all  likelihood,  that 
the  world  has  known. 

Ockham,  the  most  profound  of  the  medieval  nominalists, 
struck  at  the  very  heart  of  this  philosophy  by  attacking  the  reality 
of  universals,  by  endeavoring  to  show  the  illusory  nature  of  all 


ideas  whatsoever.  Etienne  Gilson  has  described  the  immediate 
results  as  follows:1 

Thus  blended  together,  Empiricism  and  theologism  made  a  most 
explosive  combination.  At  the  top  of  the  world,  a  God  whose  abso- 
lute power  knew  no  limits,  not  even  those  of  a  stable  nature  en- 
dowed with  a  necessity  and  an  intelligibility  of  its  own.  Between 
His  will  and  the  countless  individuals  that  co-exist  in  space  or  suc- 
ceed each  other  and  glide  away  in  time,  there  was  strictly  nothing. 
Having  expelled  from  the  mind  of  God  the  intelligible  world  of 
Plato,  Ockham  was  satisfied  that  no  intelligibility  could  be  found  in 
any  one  of  God's  works.  How  could  there  be  order  in  nature,  when 
there  is  no  nature?  And  how  could  there  be  a  nature  when  each 
singular  being,  thing,  or  event,  can  claim  no  other  justification  for 
its  existence  than  that  of  being  one  among  the  elect  of  an  all-powerful 
God?  That  was  not  the  God  of  theology,  but  of  theologism;  for 
though  the  living  God  of  theology  be  infinitely  more  than  the 
"Author  of  Nature/'  He  is  at  least  that,  whereas  Ockham's  God  was 
not  even  that.  Instead  of  being  an  eternal  source  of  that  concrete 
order  of  intelligibility  and  beauty,  which  we  call  nature,  Ockham's 
God  was  expressly  intended  to  relieve  the  world  of  the  necessity 
of  having  any  meaning  of  its  own.  The  God  of  theology  always 
vouches  for  nature;  the  jealous  God  of  theologism  usually  prefers  to 
abolish  it. 

The  universe  of  Ockham  here  described  bears  a  precise  resem- 
blance, as  we  shall  eventually  see,  to  the  universe  of  Henry 
Adams,  with  this  exception:  that  in  the  universe  of  Henry  Adams 
there  is  no  God.  In  the  universe  of  Ockham,  all  morality  and 
moral  knowledge,  or  what  we  call  such,  are  independent  of 
nature,  and  depend  directly  from  the  arbitrary  will  of  God;  and 
had  that  will  chanced  to  be  otherwise,  they  would  then  have 
been  otherwise.  We  have  no  way  of  obtaining  knowledge  of  man 
through  the  study  of  man;  we  are  the  recipients  of  arbitrary  in- 
structions which  we  disobey  at  our  peril.  In  the  universe  of 
Aquinas,  which  resembles  in  many  important  respects  that  of  his 
great  predecessor,  Aristotle,  we  can  learn  a  great  deal  by  the  light 

1  The  Unity  of  Philosophical  Experience,  by  Etienne  Gilson,  Scribners,  1937. 
P.  85. 


of  natural  reason.  The  universe  was  created  by  God,  it  is  true;  but 
it  was  so  created  as  to  pursue  its  own  laws,  and  those  laws,  includ- 
ing many  which  govern  the  nature  of  man,  can  be  discovered 
with  reasonable  accuracy  after  careful  examination  of  the  data 
before  us.  The  risk  which  Ockham  ran  is  clearly  stated  by 

Different  as  they  may  be,  owing  to  the  various  times,  places  and 
civilizations  in  which  they  were  conceived,  these  doctrines  resemble 
each  other  at  least  in  this,  that  all  of  them  are  thoroughly  intoxi- 
cated with  a  definite  religious  feeling  which  I  beg  leave  to  call,  for 
simplicity's  sake,  the  feeling  of  the  Glory  of  God.  Needless  to  say, 
there  is  no  true  religion  without  that  feeling.  The  deeper  it  is,  the 
better  it  is;  but  it  is  one  thing  to  experience  a  certain  feeling  deeply, 
and  another  thing  to  allow  it  to  dictate,  uncontrolled  by  reason,  a 
completely  rounded  interpretation  of  the  world.  When  and  where 
piety  is  permitted  to  inundate  the  philosophical  field,  the  usual  out- 
come is  that,  the  better  to  extol  the  Glory  of  God,  pious-minded 
theologians  proceed  joyfully  to  annihilate  God's  own  creation.  God 
is  great  and  high  and  almighty;  what  better  proof  could  be  given 
of  these 'truths  than  that  nature  and  man  are  essentially  insignifi- 
cant, low  and  utterly  powerless  creatures?  A  very  dangerous  method 
indeed,  for  in  the  long  run  it  is  bound  to  hurt  both  philosophy  and 
religion.  In  such  a  case  the  sequence  of  doctrines  too  often  runs  in 
the  following  way:  with  the  best  intentions  in  the  world,  some 
theologian  suggests,  as  a  philosophically  established  truth,  that  God 
is  and  does  everything,  while  nature  and  man  are  and  do  nothing; 
then  comes  a  philosopher  who  grants  the  theologian's  success  in 
proving  that  nature  is  powerless,  but  emphasizes  his  failure  to  prove 
that  there  is  a  God.  Hence  the  logical  conclusion  that  nature  is 
wholly  deprived  of  reality  and  intelligibility.  This  is  scepticism,  and 
it  cannot  be  avoided  in  such  cases.  Now  one  can  afford  to  live  on 
philosophical  scepticism,  so  long  as  it  is  backed  by  a  positive  re- 
ligious faith;  yet,  even  while  our  faith  is  there,  one  still  remains  a 
sceptic  in  philosophy,  and  were  faith  ever  to  go,  what  would  be  left 
of  us  but  an  absolute  sceptic? 

Once  a  more  or  less  Ockhamist  position  is  taken,  there  are 
various  ways  by  which  faith  may  be  lost,  as  one  can  discover  by 
examining  the  history  of  European  thought  from  the  time  of 

2  Ibid.  pp.  37-8. 

Ockham  to  the  present.  Moreover,  Ockham  was  by  no  means  the 
inventor  of  the  general  religious  position  which  he  took;  he  was 
merely  the  last  of  its  great  defenders,  and  as  a  logician  the  greatest 
of  them.  The  type  of  Christianity  to  place  faith,  which  results 
from  an  act  of  the  will  made  possible  by  Divine  Grace,  above 
understanding,  has  its  first  great  exponent  in  Augustine,  but  is 
older  than  Augustine.  This  type  of  Christianity,  the  fideistic,  or 
voluntaristic,  derives  all  knowledge  from  faith  and  Revelation, 
and  refuses  to  take  the  natural  reason  seriously;  and  although 
some  voluntarists  are  willing  to  argue  rationally  from  Revelation, 
their  theology  leads  commonly  and  rapidly  to  a  daily  dependence 
upon  Grace  and  distrust  of  reason— that  is,  to  extreme  mysticism. 
Aquinas  was  a  sane  enough  man  to  wish  to  make  the  most  of  all 
his  faculties,  and  a  good  enough  Christian  to  believe  that  God 
had  given  him  his  faculties  for  use. 

The  voluntaristic  tradition  seems  to  have  grown  upon  Chris- 
tianity of  all  kinds  since  the  fifteenth  century,  but  especially 
upon  the  western  churches  severed  from  Rome.  Voluntarism 
is  an  easy  form  of  Christianity  for  those  who  arc  not  vigorous 
intellectually  but  who  are  slow  to  give  up  old  habits,  and  it  may 
for  this  reason  have  gained  upon  the  Church  of  England  and 
upon  the  Episcopal  Church  in  the  United  States,  churches  in 
which  faith  seems  to  have  died  so  slowly  and  gently  that  its 
demise  is  only  half  suspected  today.3  It  was  in  Calvinism,  how- 
ever, that  voluntarism  received  its  logical  expression,  and  it  was 
in  New  England  that  Calvinism  was  able  to  work  out  its  own 
natural  development  with  less  interference  or  outside  influence 
than  was  possible  anywhere  in  Europe. 

The  Calvinistic  doctrines  were  all  doctrines  that  should  have 
followed  naturally  from  the  position  taken  by  Ockham:  the  doc- 
trine of  predestination,  or  the  arbitrary  separation  from  all  eter- 
nity of  the  few  to  be  saved  from  the  many  to  be  damned;  the 
doctrine  of  God's  Decrees,  or  the  predestination  from  all  eternity 
of  every  event,  to  the  falling  of  the  last  leaf;  the  doctrine  of  justi- 

3  One  of  the  many  amusing  comments  which  I  have  heard  attributed  to  the 
late  David  Starr  Jordan  goes  somewhat  as  follows:  "The  Episcopal  Church  is 
so  constituted  that  its  members  can  really  believe  anything;  but  of  course  almost 
none  of  them  do." 


fication  by  faith  alone;  the  doctrine,  closely  allied  to  the  last,  of 
the  inefficaciousness  of  good  works;  and  the  doctrine  of  Grace  as 
an  experience  essentially  mystical  and  almost  melodramatic  in  its 

Yet  the  Christians  of  the  Reformation,  in  spite  of  their  anti- 
moral  theology,  were  extremely  moral  people;  and  the  Refor- 
mation itself  was  in  a  large  measure  a  protest  against  the  abuses 
which  had  grown  up  in  the  Roman  Church  during  a  period  of 
decadence.  One  needed  courage,  both  physical  and  moral,  to  go 
with  Luther  and  Calvin;  and  of  those  who  believed  with  the 
reformers  in  England,  perhaps  the  most  convinced,  the  most 
indomitably  moral,  were  those  who  went  into  the  wilderness 
rather  than  compromise  their  convictions. 

But  their  morality  remained  fideistic.  Good  works  were  good, 
not  because  of  their  intrinsic  worth,  but  because  God  had  arbi- 
trarily termed  them  so;  good  works  were  the  fruits  of  faith,  but 
could  accomplish  nothing  in  themselves;  and  faith  was  the  arbi- 
trary gift^of  God,  which  only  a  few  would  receive.  Works  appar- 
ently good,  but  performed  by  those  not  of  the  elect,  were  a 
delusion.  And  yet  in  most  Calvinistic  systems,  and  by  nearly  all 
Calvinistic  preachers,  man  was  held  morally  responsible  to  God 
for  his  behavior.  The  Calvinists,  in  refusing  to  distinguish,  with 
Aquinas,  between  the  ideas  of  Divine  prescience  and  Divine  pre- 
destination, which  was  purely  a  philosophical  matter,  found 
themselves  confronted  with  the  very  practical  conflict  between 
the  ideas  of  predestination  and  of  man's  moral  responsibility  for 
his  acts.  The  wiser  Calvinistic  writers  have  admitted  that  the 
ideas  are  logically  incompatible  with  each  other  and  have  said 
that  the  conflict  is  a  mystery  understood  by  God  alone;  but  the 
New  England  Calvinists,  in  the  isolation  of  their  new  commu- 
nity, endeavored  all  too  often  to  argue  their  way  free;  and  the  re- 
sult was  the  destruction  of  theology.  Since  the  philosophic  under- 
standing of  morality  was  essentially  lost  in  their  tradition,  the 
source  of  it  having  been  renounced,  the  death  of  theology,  which 
alone  could  give  authority  for  moral  principles  or  behavior,  was  a 
very  serious  matter;  and  it  was  the  more  serious  because  New 


England  Calvinism  had  generated  in  its  adherents  very  intense 
moral  habits. 

These  habits,  as  I  have  indicated,  must  have  been  very  strong 
in  the  founders  of  Massachusetts,  and  the  continuation  of  them 
may  have  been  in  part  merely  the  biological  inheritance  of  a  con- 
stitutional tendency;  but  the  situation  in  Massachusetts  must 
have  done  much  to  perpetuate  and  strengthen  them.  The  New 
Englanders,  as  predestinarians,  believed  that  they  had  been  sent 
into  a  new  land  to  found  a  pure  church;  not  only  were  they  the 
elect  of  God,  but  they  represented  the  ultimate  and  predestined 
culmination  of  Christian  history,  which  in  turn  was  the  predes- 
tined triumph  of  all  preceding  human  history:  these  simple  men 
in  a  struggle  for  life  against  the  wilderness  represented  the  dra- 
matic victory  of  religion,  toward  which  God  had  ordained  the 
progress  of  the  world.  This  view  was  seriously  taken,  and  it  was 
seriously  expressed  at  the  time  by  many  writers;  the  reader  may 
examine  it  in  its  completeness  in  Cotton  Mather's  Introduction 
to  the  Magnolia  Christi  Americana,  an  Introduction  of  which 
the  opening  recalls  the  opening  of  the  Aeneid,  and  which  sets 
out  to  summarize  the  matter  of  the  Christian  epic: 

I  write  the  Wonders  of  the  Christian  Religion,  flying  from  the 
depravations  of  Europe,  to  the  American  Strand:  and,  assisted  by 
the  Holy  Author  of  that  Religion,  I  do,  with  all  conscience  of 
Truth,  required  therein  by  Him,  who  is  the  Truth  itself,  report  the 
wonderful  displays  of  His  infinite  Power,  Wisdom,  Goodness,  and 
Faithfulness,  wherewith  His  Divine  Providence  hath  irradiated  an 
Indian  Wilderness. 

The  morality  of  these  men  may  have  been  in  fact  merely 
habitual,  but  in  theory  it  was  predestined  and  arbitrary,  as  I 
have  said.  It  did  not  derive,  theoretically,  from  an  understand- 
ing of  human  nature  and  a  desire  to  improve  human  nature 
by  careful  and  enlightened  modification.  It  derived  from  the 
arbitrary  will  of  God:  God  had  given  a  few  simple  commands 
for  behavior,  and  they  were  to  be  obeyed  simply  and  literally. 
The  theology  employed  by  the  17th  century  church  in  New 


England  modified  original  Calvinism  in  certain  important  re- 
spects; the  most  important  being  with  reference  to  the  signs  of 
election.  The  importance  of  the  mystical  experience  was  mini- 
mized; in  its  place  was  encouraged  the  belief  that  a  man  might 
know  himself  one  of  the  elect  when  he  decided  to  enter  the 
church  and  conform  to  its  principles.  The  doctrine  of  predesti- 
nation was  not  altered  by  this  belief,  for  the  decision,  apparently 
an  act  of  the  private  will,  had  been  predestined. 

Every  human  act  thus  became  a  sign  in  an  allegory,  as  did 
every  event  in  nature.  If  a  man  sinned,  it  was  fairly  obvious 
that  he  was  an  evil  man  and  one  of  the  damned,  in  spite  of  the 
theoretic  but  negligible  possibility  that  he  might  be  predestined 
to  a  later  repentance  and  ultimate  salvation.  The  most  insignifi- 
cant events  were  predetermined  by  God  in  accordance  with  His 
eternal  plan:  by  a  cast  of  the  dice  one  might  discover  God's  will, 
for  the  fall  of  the  dice  was  predestined;  though  it  is  hard  in  these 
later  days  to  understand  why  confirmed  predcstinarians  should 
ever  have  required  the  intervention  of  the  dice,  when  they  had 
renounced  with  abhorrence  the  intervention  of  the  Ghurch  of 

Further,  until  the  time  of  Andros,  the  church  ruled  the  state; 
and  it  was  not  until  the  charter  of  1692  that  there  was  any  real 
relaxation  of  the  theory  that  the  church  had  a  right  to  do  so, 
and  the  relaxation,  when  it  came,  was  merely  the  slow  beginning 
of  a  long  process.  The  result  was  the  fixing  of  certain  social  and 
mental  habits,  stronger,  in  all  probability,  than  any  others  which 
have  ever  permeated  a  society  at  all  its  levels.  Morality  was 
strong,  simple,  and  arbitrary;  and  under  the  influence  of  the 
doctrine  of  predestination,  it  transformed  the  human  mind  into 
an  allegorical  machine.  One  can  open  the  diary  of  Cotton 
Mather  almost  at  random  and  verify  this  assertion:  people  en 
countered  casually  on  the  street,  the  vicissitudes  of  private  ex- 
perience, a  dog  urinating  #  a  wall,  were  signs  which  Mather 
read  for  their  divine  meaning.  And  one  can  verify  the  assertion 
in  innumerable  minor  documents  of  the  time.  This  allegorism 
was  not  a  literary  movement  or  device,  such  as  one  meets  among 
the  neo-Platonists  in  various  periods;  nor  was  it  the  property  of 

an  academic  class,  like  the  medieval  realism  which  expressed  it- 
self in  a  somewhat  less  allegorical  allegory  than  that  of  the  Puri- 
tans, for  example  in  that  of  Dante;  nor  was  it  a  pedagogic  device 
for  instructing  the  illiterate,  such  as  one  meets  at  the  lower  levels 
of  medieval  literature,  doubtless  as  a  result  of  the  influence  of 
the  realists;  it  was  a  form  of  the  mind  in  daily  life,  a  way  of  seeing 
the  universe,  which  appears  to  have  been  common  to  an  entire 
society,  and  it  persisted  well  into  the  nineteenth  century,  after 
the  ideas  which  had  given  rise  to  it  had  long  since  passed  away. 
The  works  of  Hawthorne,  Melville,  Henry  James,  and  Henry 
Adams  are  its  belated  fruits  in  literature;  in  fact  the  diary  of 
Cotton  Mather  and  the  Education  of  Henry  Adams  offer  one 
of  the  most  curious  cases  of  similar  temperaments  that  one  is 
ever  likely  to  find  in  two  literary  periods  so  far  apart. 

By  the  end  of  the  17th  century,  New  England  Calvinism 
was  disintegrating,  especially  along  the  Massachusetts  seaboard; 
and  about  1733  there  began  in  the  parish  of  Jonathan  Edwards 
a  revival  of  Calvinism,  which,  under  the, influence  of  several 
powerful,  though  but  vaguely  Calvinistical  field-preachers,  was 
to  sweep  New  England  within  the  next  few  years.  The  excite- 
ment of  this  movement  resulted  in  the  breaking  off  of  many  small 
and  strangely  inspired  sects  from  the  main  Calvinistic  body;  but 
it  resulted  also  in  the  establishment  of  a  revised  and  renewed 
Calvinism,  under  the  guidance  of  Edwardian  theology. 

Edwardian  theology  abandoned  the  early  New  England  modi- 
fications of  Calvinism;  it  taught  an  undisguised  determinism  and 
a  purely  mystical  doctrine  of  Grace.  New  England  mystical 
tendencies  had  by  no  means  been  suppressed  by  the  earlier  doc- 
trine: there  had  been  doctrinal  heretics,  and  even  among  the 
orthodox,  such  as  Increase  and  Cotton  Mather,  there  had  been 
mystical  trances,  ecstasies,  and  visions,  Cotton  Mather,  in  fact, 
having  been  visited  by  an  angel  during  one  of  the  sunlit  morn- 
ings of  his  youth.  But  Edwards  revived  and  encouraged  this 
tendency  by  explicit  doctrine;  and  the  New  Englander's  capacity 
for  mystical  belief  and  feeling  was  thus  carried  over  to  the  period 
when  Emerson  should  redescribe  the  mystical  experience,  em- 

ploying  the  ideas  of  Romantic  pantheism  recently  imported  from 
the  literary  movements  of  Europe,  and  as  far  as  might  be  the 
language  of  Edwardian  Calvinism,  so  that  Romantic  doctrine 
was  offered  in  a  language  carrying  most  of  the  emotional  im 
plications  of  the  New  England  religious  tradition  in  its  most 
intense  aspects.  Mind  and  matter,  God  and  Creation  were  one; 
the  inundation  of  the  mind  by  instinct  and  emotion  was  Divine 
Grace;  and  surrender  to  whim  was  surrender  to  the  Spirit.  Whit 
man  restated  this  doctrine  in  a  vulgar  style,  and  increased  its 
popularity;  William  James  did  much  to  give  it  academic  re- 
spectability; and  it  reached  its  final  and  dramatic  fulfillment  in 
the  life  and  work  of  Hart  Crane.  The  mystical  tradition  would 
appear  to  have  had  little  influence  upon  Adams  at  the  beginning, 
but  as  we  shall  ultimately  see,  he  drew  very  near  to  it  in  the 
later  years  of  his  life. 

But  Edwards  had  little  influence  along  the  seaboard:  the 
churches  there  continued  their  process  of  breaking  down  the 
17th  cehtury  theology  which  they  had  long  since  begun.  The 
moral  sense  proved  stronger  than  the  belief  in  predestination, 
and  with  the  disappearance  of  the  doctrine  of  predestination 
went  most  of  what  was  precise  and  strong  in  Calvinistic  theol- 
ogy. Certainly  the  doctrine  of  predestination  was  the  essential 
element  in  Calvinism;  and  when  that  went,  theology  was  gone, 
for  the  ancient  and  habitual  antagonism  to  Romanism,  Angli 
canism  and  Arminianism  remained  when  the  doctrinal  justifi- 
cation for  it  was  dead:  there  were  a  few  apostates  to  Anglican- 
ism, such  as  the  American  Samuel  Johnson,  but  in  general  the 
New  Englander  was  incapable  even  of  thinking  of  a  Christianity 
antecedent  to  Calvin.  Whatever  the  intellectual  troubles  of  the 
New  Englander,  he  was  the  creature  of  the  strongest  habits  that 
the  world  had  ever  seen. 

The  result  was  Unitarianism.  Among  the  Unitarian  and  re- 
lated churches  of  the  early  nineteenth  century  there  was  a  good 
deal  of  variation  in  doctrine,  but  the  tendency  was  toward  a 
belief  in  a  benevolent  God,  in  place  of  the  angry  God  of  the 
fathers;  in  Christ  as  a  moral  teacher,  and  not  as  the  son  of  God; 


in  freedom  of  the  will;  in  the  complete  efficaciousness  of  good 
works.  And  there  was  an  increasing  tendency  toward  disbelief 
in  eternal  damnation.  Unitarianism  placed  man's  responsibility 
for  his  acts  and  his  salvation  wholly  within  himself,  but  the 
acts  of  a  well-bred  man  conformed  almost  inevitably  to  the  strong 
customs  of  the  society  which  had  been  generated  by  the  earlier 
ideas;  so  that  between  the  ease  with  which  one  might  be  moral 
and  the  gentlemanly  attitude  of  God,  salvation  appeared  a  fairly 
simple  matter.  This  period  produced  a  type  of  mind  which  we 
may  still  observe  in  the  poetry  of  Bryant,  and  in  the  prose  of 
Prescott  and  of  the  first  Charles  Francis  Adams:  able,  dignified, 
and  at  times  distinguished;  governed  easily  by  firm  convictions; 
uncritical  of  accepted  principles;  and  tending  to  substitute  gen- 
eral stereotypes  for  precise  perceptions  and  ideas.  Men  of  this 
type  adopted  easily  and  turned  to  their  own  purposes  the  literary 
style  produced  by  English  deism,  a  style  composed  of  somewhat 
vaguely  general  ideas,  of  an  easy  and  well-constkructed  period, 
and  of  the  highly  generalized  statement  which  tended  at  its 
best  toward  the  aphorism,  at  its  weakest  toward  the  clich£. 
Thanatopsis  is  a  sound  poem  and  a  serious  and  moving  one; 
and  rhetorically  it  is  a  masterpiece.  But  as  compared  even  to  so 
simple  a  piece  as  Herbert's  Church  Monuments,  it  displays  a 
very  simple  and  generalized  grasp  of  its  subject;  and  the  same 
comments  may  be  made  upon  Byrant's  best  work  throughout— 
To  a  Waterfowl,  The  Battlefield,  The  Grave,  and  The  Tides. 

It  was  the  Unitarians  who  provided  the  immediate  back- 
ground of  Henry  Adams,  and  he  described  their  mentality  on 
many  occasions,  and  always  with  bewilderment.  In  the  history 
he  writes:4 

No  more  was  heard  of  the  Westminster  doctrine  that  man  had 
lost  all  ability  of  will  to  any  spiritual  good  accompanying  salvation, 
but  was  dead  in  sin.  So  strong  was  the  reaction  against  old  dogmas 
that  for  thirty  years  society  seemed  less  likely  to  resume  the  ancient 
faith  in  the  Christian  Trinity,  than  to  establish  a  new  Trinity  in 
which  a  deified  humanity  should  have  a  place.  Under  the  influence 

'History  of  the  United  States  during  the  Administrations  of  Jefferson  and 
Madison,  by  Henry  Adams.  Albert  and  Charles  Boni,  1930.  Vol.  IX,  pp.  182-3. 


of  Channing  and  his  friends,  human  nature  was  adorned  with  vir- 
tues hardly  suspected  before,  and  with  hopes  of  perfection  on  earth 
altogether  strange  to  theology.  The  Church  then  charmed.  The 
worth  of  man  became  under  Channing's  teachings  a  source  of  pride 
and  joy,  with  such  insistence  as  to  cause  his  hearers  at  last  to  recall, 
almost  with  a  sense  of  relief,  that  the  Saviour  himself  had  been  con- 
tent to  regard  them  only  as  of  more  value  than  many  sparrows. 

And  a  few  lines  below,  he  adds  of  the  doctrine  of  Hosea 

This  new  doctrine,  which  took  the  name  of  Universalism,  held 
as  an  article  of  faith  "that  there  is  one  God,  whose  nature  is  love, 
revealed  in  one  Lord  Jesus  Christ,  by  one  Holy  Spirit  of  Grace,  who 
will  finally  restore  the  whole  family  of  mankind  to  holiness  and 
happiness/'  In  former  times  anyone  who  had  publicly  professed 
belief  in  universal  salvation  would  not  have  been  regarded  as  a 
Christian.  .  .  .  Yet  the  Universalists  steadily  grew  in  numbers  and 
respectability,  spreading  from  State  to  State  under  Ballou's  guid- 
ance. .  .  . 

It  is  their  bland  security  that  most  puzzles  Adams,  as  it  may 
well  puzzle  us  today.  In  the  Education  he  writes:5 

Nothing  quieted  doubt  so  completely  as  the  mental  calm  of  the 
Unitarian  clergy.  In  uniform  excellence  of  life  and  character,  moral 
and  intellectual,  the  score  of  Unitarian  clergymen  about  Boston, 
who  controlled  society  and  Harvard  College,  were  never  excelled. 
They  proclaimed  as  their  merit  that  they  insisted  on  no  doctrine, 
but  taught,  or  tried  to  teach,  the  means  of  leading  a  virtuous,  use- 
ful, unselfish  life,  which  they  held  to  be  sufficient  for  salvation.  For 
them  difficulties  might  be  ignored;  doubts  were  waste  of  thought; 
nothing  exacted  solution.  Boston  had  solved  the  universe;  or  had 
offered  and  realized  the  best  solution  yet  tried.  The  problem  was 
worked  out. 

And  in  the  History  he  quotes  a  passage  from  Channing  which 
illustrates  this  view,  and  comments  upon  it:6 

6  The  Education  of  Henry  Adams,  by  Henry  Adams,  Modern  Library  Edi- 
tion, p.  34. 
6  Op.  cit.  Vol.  IX,  pp.  181-2. 


"We  lay  it  down  as  a  great  and  indisputable  opinion,  clear  as  the 
sun  at  noon-day,  that  the  great  end  for  which  Christian  truth  is  re- 
vealed is  the  sanctification  of  the  soul,  the  formation  of  the  Chris- 
tian character;  and  wherever  we  see  the  marks  of  this  character 
displayed  in  a  professed  disciple  of  Jesus,  we  hope  and  rejoice  to 
hope,  that  he  has  received  all  the  truth  which  is  necessary  to  his 
salvation."  The  hope  might  help  to  soothe  anxiety  and  distress, 
but  it  defied  conclusions  reached  by  the  most  anxious  and  often 
renewed  labors  of  churchmen  for  eighteen  hundred  years.  Some- 
thing more  than  a  hope  was  necessary  as  the  foundation  of  a  faith. 

This  was,  however,  the  last  step  possible  to  a  voluntaristic 
Christianity  which  should  remain  non-mystical.  Dogmas  were 
ignored  as  misleading  and  vicious;  theology  was  so  simplified 
that  one  could  scarcely  identify  the  God  in  whom  one  believed. 
But  belief  remained,  and  one's  entire  theory  of  human  nature, 
or  rather  of  human  conduct,  depended  arbitrarily  but  historically 
and  helplessly  from  that  belief.  As  long  as  the  belief  remained, 
the  spiritual  result  was  a  kind  of  placid  security;  but  the  New 
Englander  retained  his  need  for  security,  and  wherever  the  be- 
lief departed  and  the  evidence  is  still  available  for  examination, 
we  commonly  find  a  kind  of  willed  confusion  and  religious  hor- 
ror, best  represented  in  literature  by  Melville's  Pierre  and  The 
Confidence  Man  and  by  the  later  work  of  Henry  Adams. 

The  strength  of  the  voluntaristic  tradition  may  be  observed 
in  a  New  Englander  of  our  own  period,  the  late  Irving  Babbitt. 
Babbitt  found  that  human  nature  functioned  at  three  levels, 
to  use  his  own  figure:  the  naturalistic,  which  was  the  level  of 
the  emotions  and  instincts,  and  which  had  been  exploited  by 
the  writers  of  the  Romantic  movement;  the  humanistic,  or  criti- 
cal, at  which  we  are  able  to  examine  the  lower  level,  understand 
it,  and  control  it;  and  the  religious,  which  is  above  criticism. 
In  his  most  valuable  book,  Rousseau  and  Romanticism,  he  de- 
votes himself  primarily  to  the  criticism  of  Romantic  principles 
from  what  he  calls  a  humanistic  position,  and  he  refers  to  him- 
self as  an  Aristotelian.  The  book  is  marred  by  his  reference  to 
the  "Inner  Check,"  or  conscience,  a  feeling  which  functions  at 


the  religious  level;  but  I  believe  that  this  element  can  be  dis- 
sected out  with  no  great  damage  to  the  criticism  of  the  Romantic 

In  his  later  work,  however,  his  religious  doctrines  become 
more  important,  and  in  the  book  entitled  On  Being  Creative, 
he  asserts  the  absolute  primacy  of  the  will:  man  must  will  to 
submit  his  private  will  to  the  higher  will,  in  which  he  must 
believe,  and  from  that  act  understanding  can  follow;  and  the 
Inner  Check,  or  Conscience,  the  feeling  superior  to  reason  and 
which  guides  us  in  emergencies,  is  identified  with  Divine  Grace. 
This  is  Augustinism  without  the  Christianity:  we  must  believe 
in  that  which  is  superior  to  reason  and  which  we  therefore  can- 
not define,  much  less  examine  critically;  and  in  that  which  is 
divorced  from  any  particular  historical  tradition  such  as  that 
which  still,  I  suppose,  supports  the  belief  of  the  Christian.  And 
we  have  as  our  ultimate  guide  an  emotional  experience  which 
is  above  rational  criticism:  the  practical  question  therefore  arises 
as  to  how  we  shall  distinguish  between  an  experience  which  is 
above  criticism  and  one  which  is  fairly  subject  to  it,  if  we  can- 
not bring  criticism  properly  to  bear  on  the  first.  Babbitt's  final 
position  seems  to  be  little  better  than  a  starting  point  for  a  short- 
cut back  to  Emersonian  mysticism. 

Babbitt  believed  the  Inner  Check  to  be  a  psychological  fact, 
observable  and  therefore  a  fit  beginning  for  discussion.  But  the 
question  remains  as  to  the  exact  nature  of  the  fact.  The  feeling 
which  is  called  conscience  in  Protestant  and  post-Protestant  so- 
ciety is  presumably  real;  but  when  Aquinas  comes  to  define 
conscience,  he  identifies  it  with  reason,  and  he  discusses  the 
moral  consequences  of  the  identification  at  great  length.  From 
a  Thomistic  position,  there  would  always  remain  the  possibility 
of  divine  intervention  in  a  particular  instance;  but  the  Catholic 
Christian,  whether  Thomistic  or  other,  would  be  protected 
against  error  by  the  supervision  of  the  Church,  a  supervision 
which  Babbitt  did  not  enjoy:  and  this  supervision  is,  in  theory, 
the  supervision  of  the  disinterested  reason. 

But  Aquinas  would  be  forced,  I  believe,  by  his  definition 
of  conscience  and  by  his  use  of  the  Aristotelian  doctrine  of 

habit,  to  identify  Babbitt's  Inner  Check  in  most  of  its  individual 
occurrences  as  an  habitual  way  of  feeling  about  certain  kinds  of 
acts;  the  habit  having  been  generated  by  training  in  a  particular 
kind  of  society,  which  in  turn  had  grown  up  originally  in  con- 
formity with  certain  kinds  of  ideas.  There  is  nothing  in  Babbitt 
to  make  one  relinquish  this  interpretation,  or  even  to  make  one 
believe  that  he  suspected  the  possibility  of  this  interpretation; 
and  if  the  interpretation  is  true,  it  follows,  as  various  critics  have 
suggested,  that  the  Inner  Check  will  become  progressively 
weaker  as  the  generating  ideas  tend  less  and  less  to  acceptance 
and  the  society  in  consequence  alters  its  nature.  Babbitt's  doc- 
trine of  the  Inner  Check  appears  to  be  a  late  expression  of  the 
voluntaristic  belief  that  morality  is  arbitrary  and  incomprehen- 
sible; the  exact  reverse  of  the  Aristotelian  doctrine,  by  which 
Babbitt  appears  to  be  mainly  influenced  in  his  early  work,  that 
morality  is  a  fair  subject  for  philosophical  and  psychological  in- 
vestigation, and  that  its  principles  can  be  discovered  in  a  large 
measure  through  the  use  of  the  natural  reason  in  the  study  of 

I  should  like  also  to  cite  the  instance  of  Henry  James,  for 
his  connections  with  Adams  are  immediate  and  important.  In 
my  essay  on  James,7  I  have  shown  that  the  character  in  the 
Jamesian  novel  is  guided  by  a  moral  sense,  or  habit,  which, 
though  very  intense,  has  lost  its  connections  with  its  origins, 
so  that  it  is  never  adequately  guided  by  any  critical  apparatus, 
and  that  a  good  deal  of  obscurity  results  directly  from  this  situ- 
ation in  many  of  the  novels.  The  interesting  thing  about  James 
as  a  critic  is  that  he  appears  to  be  in  precisely  the  same  predica- 
ment as  the  characters  in  his  novels.  He  objects  to  various  con- 
tinental writers  for  their  lack  of  moral  sense,  and  he  criticizes 
many  of  his  own  books  for  the  obscurity  of  their  motivation, 
an  obscurity  which,  though  he  realizes  the  fact  imperfectly, 
results  from  the  confusion  of  his  own  moral  sense;  but  when 
he  discusses  the  general  principles  of  fiction,8  he  derides  the 

7  See  page  300  of  this  volume. 

8  The  references  are  to  The  Art  of  Fiction,  in  Partial  Portraits.  It  is  early, 
but  characteristic. 


idea  that  morality  has  anything  to  do  with  fiction,  yet  he  insists 
that  fiction  "must  take  itself  seriously/'  is  obliged  "really  to 
represent  life";  he  takes  it  for  granted  "that  some  incidents  are 
intrinsically  much  more  important  than  others/'  although  a  few 
lines  further,  he  is  willing  to  grant  the  artist  any  subject  and 
judge  him  only  by  what  he  does  with  it. 

His  terms,  when  he  goes  behind  the  terms  relating  to  the 
technical  structure  of  the  novel,  -are  extremely  confused;  but 
he  insists  that  the  novel  shall  be  interesting.  And  when  we 
have  read  a  great  deal  of  his  criticism,  we  discover  that  he  means 
that  it  must  be  interesting  to  Henry  James;  and  to  discover  the 
meaning  of  this  interest,  we  must  first  come  to  understand  Henry 
James,  which  we  can  best  do  through  the  study  of  his  novels. 
Ultimately  he  demands  that  the  novel  display  (in  a  very  finished 
form,  naturally)  the  particular  moral  sense,  or  feeling  for  human 
motivation,  which  he  himself  possesses.  This  moral  sense  is  the 
product  of  New  England  and  of  a  very  special  section  of  history; 
and  it  has  lost  all  connection  with  its  intellectual  sources,  merely 
existing,  more  and  more  precariously,  in  vacuo;  but  James  as- 
sumes it  to  be,  if  not  universal,  at  least  a  standard  universally 
applicable,  so  that  he  is  in  about  the  same  situation  as  the  later 

Adams  possessed  the  same  moral  sense,  in  a  very  exasperated 
form.  He  knew  that  he  had  it,  and  he  knew  that  it  closely  re- 
sembled that  of  James;  but  unlike  James,  he  felt  that  it  needed 
justification,  either  philosophical  or  religious,  and  he  convinced 
himself  that  neither  was  possible.  Before  proceeding  to  an  ex- 
amination of  Adams'  thought  and  art,  I  wish  to  cite  a  few  of 
his  references  to  James,  for  they  will  illuminate  a  great  deal  of 
that  which  is  to  follow. 

In  1903  Adams  wrote  to  James  after  reading  James's  life  of 

More  than  ever,  after  devouring  your  William  Story,  I  feel  how 
difficult  a  job  was  imposed  on  you.  It  is  a  tour  de  force,  of  course, 

9  Letters  of  Henry  Adams  1 892-1 91 8,  edited  by  W.  C.  Ford.  Houghton 
Mifflin,  1938,  p.  414. 


but  that  you  knew  from  the  first.  Whether  you  have  succeeded  or 
not,  I  cannot  say,  because  it  all  spreads  itself  out  as  though  I  had 
written  it,  and  I  feel  where  you  are  walking  on  firm  ground,  and 
where  you  are  on  thin  ice,  as  though  I  were  in  your  place.  Verily 
I  believe  I  wrote  it.  Except  your  specialty  of  style,  it  is  me. 

The  painful  truth  is  that  all  of  my  New  England  generation, 
counting  the  half-century,  1820-1870,  were  in  actual  fact  only  one 
mind  and  nature;  the  individual  was  a  facet  of  Boston.  We  knew 
each  other  to  the  last  nervous  center,  and  feared  each  other's  knowl- 
edge. We  looked  through  each  other  like  microscopes.  There  was 
absolutely  nothing  in  us  that  we  did  not  understand  merely  by 
looking  in  the  eye.10  There  was  hardly  a  difference  even  in  depth, 
for  Harvard  College  and  Unitarianism  kept  us  all  shallow.  We 
knew  nothing— no!  but  really  nothing!  of  the  world.  One  cannot 
exaggerate  the  profundity  of  ignorance  of  Story  in  becoming  a 
sculptor,  or  Stunner  in  becoming  a  Statesman,  or  Emerson  in  be- 
coming a  philosopher.  Story  and  Sumncr,  Emerson  and  Alcott, 
Lowell  and  Longfellow,  Ilillard,  Winthrop,  Motley,  Prcseott,  and 
all  the  rest,  were  the  same  mind,— and  so,  poor  worm!— was  I! 

Type  bourgeois-boston ien!  A  type  quite  as  good  as  another,  but 
more  uniform.  What  you  say  of  Stow  is  at  bottom  exactly  what 
you  would  say  of  Lowell,  Motley,  and  Sumner,  barring  degrees 
of  egotism.  You  cannot  help  smiling  at  them,  but  you  smile  at  us 
all  equally.  God  knows  that  we  knew  our  want  of  knowledge!  the 
self-distrust  became  introspection— nervous  self-consciousness— irrita- 
ble dislike  of  America,  and  antipathy  to  Boston.  Audi  ich  war  in 
Arcadlen  geborenl 

So  you  have  written  not  Story's  life,  but  your  own  and  mine- 
pure  autobiography— the  more  keen  for  what  is  beneath,  implied, 
intelligible  only  to  me,  and  half  a  dozen  other  people  still  living; 
like  Frank  Boott:  who  knew  our  Boston,  London,  and  Rome  in 
the  fifties  and  sixties.  You  make  me  curl  up  like  a  trodden-on 
worm.  Improvised  Europeans  we  were,  and— Lord  God!— how  thin! 
No,  but  it  is  too  cruel!  Long  ago,— at  least  thirty  years  ago,— I  dis- 
covered it,  and  have  painfully  held  my  tongue  about  it.  You  strip 
us  gently  and  kindly,  like  a  surgeon,  and  I  feel  your  knife  in  my 

10  It  is  amusing  to  compare  this  statement  with  the  statement  of  Dallas  Archer 
to  his  father,  near  the  end  of  The  Age  of  Innocence:  "You  never  did  ask  each 
other  anything,  did  you?  And  you  never  told  each  other  anything.  You  just 
sat  and  watched  each  other,  ana  guessed  at  what  was  going  on  underneath.  A 
deaf-and-dumb  asylum,  in  fact!  Well,  I  back  your  generation  for  knowing  more 
about  each  other's  thoughts  than  we  ever  have  time  to  find  out  about  our  own." 


In  1901  he  had  written  to  Elizabeth  Cameron:11 

Harry  James  has  upset  me.  John  Hay  has  been  greatly  troubled 
by  Harry's  last  volume,  The  Sacred  Fount.  He  cannot  resist  the 
suspicion  that  it  is  very  close  on  extravagance.  His  alarm  made 
me  read  it,  and  I  recognized  at  once  that  Harry  and  I  had  the 
same  disease,  the  obsession  of  idee  fixe.  .  .  . 

In  1908  he  wrote  to  William  James  of  his  own  Education:1'2 

As  for  the  volume,  it  interests  me  chiefly  as  a  literary  experi- 
ment, hitherto,  as  far  as  I  know,  never  tried  or  never  successful. 
Your  brother  Harry  tries  such  experiments  in  literary  art  daily, 
and  would  know  instantly  what  I  mean;  but  I  doubt  whether 
a  dozen  people  in  America— except  architects  or  decorators— would 
know  or  care. 

And  in  1916,  on  learning  of  the  death  of  this  friend  and  alter- 
ego,  he  wrote  to  Elizabeth  Cameron : 18 

Today  the  death  of  Harry  James  makes  me  feel  the  need  of  a 
let-up;  I  must  speak  to  some  one,  and  here  I  have  no  one  Jamesian 
to  talk  to,  except  Wendell  Holmes,  and  I  never  see  him,  for  he  is 
like  me  in  avoiding  contemporaries.  Harry's  death  hits  me  harder 
than  any  stroke  since  my  brother  Charles'  death  a  year  ago.  Not 
only  was  he  a  friend  of  mine  for  more  than  forty  years,  but  he  also 
belonged  to  the  circle  of  my  wife's  set  long  before  I  knew  him  or 
her,  and  you  know  how  I  have  clung  to  all  that  belonged  to  my 
wife.  Swallow,  sister!  sweet  sister  swallow!  indeed  and  indeed,  we 
were  really  happy  then. 


Adams'  theory  of  history  is  really  a  philosophy  and  a  theory 
of  human  nature;  it  is  wholly  indefensible  and  perverse,  and 
we  should  be  hard  pressed  to  understand  how  a  man  of  genius 
could  conceive  it  if  we  had  not  some  understanding  of  the  history 

11  Letters  of  Henry  Adams,  op.  cit.,  p.  333. 
"Ibid.  p.  490. 
"Ibid.  p.  638. 


which  is  largely  responsible  for  his  state  of  mind.  Briefly,  he 
possessed  the  acute  moral  sense  of  New  England  to  which  1 
have  already  referred  and  the  New  Englander's  need  to  read 
the  significance  of  every  event  which  he  saw.  But  he  was  of  the 
Ockhamist  tradition;  and  as  for  the  Mathers,  so  for  him,  the 
significance  could  not  reside  within  the  event  but  must  reside 
back  of  it.  He  would  scarcely  have  put  it  this  way,  and  he  might 
have  denied  the  paternity  of  Ockham;  but  he  belonged  to  a 
moral  tradition  which  had  taken  its  morality  wholly  on  faith 
for  so  long  that  it  had  lost  the  particular  kind  of  intelligence  and 
perception  necessary  to  read  the  universe  for  what  it  is;  and  had 
developed  instead  a  passion  to  read  the  universe  for  what  it 
means,  as  a  system  of  divine  shorthand  or  hieroglyphic,  as  a 
statement  of  ultimate  intentions. 

He  had  no  faith,  however,  and  hence  he  could  not  believe 
that  there  was  anything  back  of  the  event:  the  event  was  merely 
isolated  and  impenetrable.  Yet  he  possessed  the  kind  of  mind 
which  drove  him  to  read  every  event  with  a  kind  of  allegorical 
precision;  and  since  every  event  was  isolated  and  impenetrable, 
he  read  in  each  new  event  the  meaning  that  the  universe  is 
meaningless.  Meaning  had  been  a  function  of  faith;  and  faith 
had  been  faith  not  only  in  God  and  his  decalogue  but  in  a 
complete  cosmology  and  chronology,  that  is,  in  all  of  Revela- 
tion; and  if  any  part  of  this  system  was  injured,  every  part  was 
destroyed.  The  discoveries  of  geologists  and  astronomers  caused 
him  indescribable  suffering  and  made  it  utterly  impossible  that 
he  should  examine  dispassionately  the  moral  nature  of  man. 

I  shall  deal  later  with  Adams'  view  of  the  Middle  Ages,  thus 
reversing  his  chronology.  He  saw  the  twentieth  century  as  an 
age  of  multiplicity  or  chaos,  in  which  man  was  forced  to  recog- 
nize the  c